Money Matters Medical Markets Taxpayer funded biotech looks for investment returns
Taxpayer funded biotech looks for investment returns
Friday, 01 September 2006
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Why would the WA Government spend $0.85m each year to fly Nobel Laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren around the world as roving ambassadors for WA biotech? Because the enthusiastic embracing of biotech research by governments, ahead of other 'pure' research, is based on a perception that this research offers more chance of a financial return on taxpayer investment. And biotech researchers are fuelling this perception with announcements of discoveries years ahead of realizing a commercial application for their discovery.

thumb_0605At_microscope.jpg The Labor Government in WA is now investing public money in biotechnology industry clusters and technology parks, as well as supporting clinical trials and agricultural biotechnology. The Opposition is backing the same winner, saying too little too late.

Premier Alan Carpenter's plan includes a code of conduct for the local biotechnology industry, programs to develop and maintain biotechnology skills in WA and a study into the economic potential of bio-prospecting. He said the State has already invested >$82m in medical and agricultural research in WA in recent times - $50m for two new biomedical and health research facilities at SCGH and the planned Fiona Stanley Hospital, $4.5m for a new Centre for Food and Genomic Medicine (biotech, agriculture and food technology), $21m to the WA Marine Science Institution, $4.6m to biotech projects, $1.2m each year on biotech crop, animal and pest diagnostics, and $0.85m each year for the Marshall/Warren thing.

An additional $72m has been allocated to science and innovation in this year's State Budget. The business case for each initiative would be assessed and, where appropriate, funding allocated. "These well-known WA researchers should be recognised for their efforts in developing WA biotechnology companies to take their leading research to the world, supporting WA economic growth, jobs and prosperity," the Premier said.

Part of the groundswell has been a regular stream of media hype around gene discoveries by WA researchers. This has some medicos perplexed. Touted as potential cure-alls by the media, the fine print on these discoveries is of interest to those inquisitive about the level of apparent "blue-sky" funding for genetic research when the health system is under cost pressures.

Take SLIRP, a gene that encodes for a protein that down-regulates oestrogen activity in breast cancer cells. Uncovered by Prof Peter Leedman's group at RPH (part of WAIMR), the gene discovery was recently portrayed by the lay and university media as a potential cure for breast and prostate cancer, a perception backed by Prof Leedman's reported comments. The fine print is: only IF smart drugs can be developed to target the gene; and only IF clinical trials confirm this as a major therapeutic pathway. This is all many years off and speculative - we wish them well.

Meanwhile, the research team will attempt to patent the gene, making the discovery a potential financial windfall if all goes to plan, which begs the question, are such premature announcements really about "medical breakthroughs" or about maintaining enthusiasm for ongoing funding?

Time will tell if our tax dollars have been invested wisely.