WEHI’s National Drug Discovery Centre starts with focus on cancer immunotherapy

A search for new cancer immunotherapy treatments is one of the first projects to be supported at a new National Drug Discovery Centre established in Victoria.

The NDDC centre at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne is the first of its kind in Australia, and will allow researchers to rapidly assess the therapeutic potential of new molecules using advanced robotic high-throughput screening to allow them to be fast tracked in development.

The centre has been set up with income from the Institute’s sale of venetoclax royalties as well as Commonwealth and State funding.

One of the first two projects is led by Professor Matthias Ernst from La Trobe University and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute. His team will receive a subsidy to identify new immunotherapy cancer treatments, particularly for gastrointestinal tumours.

Professor Ernst says his work involves using state-of-the-art molecular biology and genetic tools to understand mechanism that corrupt the normal renewal of the lining of the bowel and stomach and result in the formation of tumours.

“[Our] laboratory team is exploring novel strategies to target these mechanisms and develop new therapies and treatments for gastrointestinal cancers for the benefit of cancer patients.”

The NDDC facility will allow medical researchers to fast-track the development of new drugs to treat common and rare diseases, said Minister for Health Greg Hunt at the opening launch.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton that for many years the translation of world-class Australian research into new medicines has been hampered by a lack of capacity for drug development.

“This meant many promising research discoveries were either never pursued, or researchers were forced overseas to develop their research into new therapies,” Professor Hilton said.

“The Institute is proud to have led the establishment of a centre that will fill a vital gap in Australia’s drug discovery pipeline. The centre will enable our colleagues from Australian research institutes, universities and small-to-medium enterprises to advance their research beyond the bench and provide them with world-class facilities and staff as they fast-track their drug discovery journeys.”

Round two applications for subsidised access to the NDDC close on 23 March with successful recipients chosen by an independent panel. There will be two funding rounds per year with increasing capacity until 2022.

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