How many of you had seen the articles Smart Country Sells Itself Short and Australia Blind to the Innovation Boom – Beattie published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10th November? Well, ironically, I was first made aware of these articles by three antipodean, but internationally stranded sea turtles!
The article titles themselves paint a view that is shared by many ‘international’ Australians who, having left for foreign shores at various stages of their careers, are faced with the desire of returning home; it hits a particularly raw nerve with those of us closely involved in the development and commercialisation of medicines.
The strengths of Australian science, discovery and optimisation of potential new drugs, are appreciated here at home, and also abroad. We celebrate our fair share of Nobel laureates and the discovery triumphs of brilliant scientists: Ian Frazer and his Queensland team’s cervical cancer vaccine discovery, the discovery of flu-fighting Relenza at CSIRO and Monash University; and world class research productivity from institutes like the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research that showcases Australia’s outstanding research focused medical fraternity.
So why is it that Australia sits 107th on the 2012 Global Innovation Index, behind Georgia, Malawi and Colombia? As Peter Beattie highlighted, “Our basic research is world-class, our commercialisation is not”. Australia is viewed as a rich hunting ground for “early stage opportunities” for international medicine developers. Real value capture in the life sciences space for Australia is lost when we sell our drugs too early in the development process. Rather, we should be managing risk and intelligently moving some of these early opportunities further along the development path. This requires “development and commercialisation” skills.
This process of “development and commercialisation” of a medicine, like rocket science, is extremely complex, expensive (>$1Bn), risky (<10% of drugs that eventually make it into humans reach the market), and it is definitely not an “individual” sport. It requires “teams” of dedicated, top minds tackling a problem from multiple perspectives in parallel. A typical core drug development team may have 10 or more highly qualified representatives (most with doctoral degrees, and many with multiple qualifications across disciplines) from diverse functional areas, each supported by many others. Roles include medical development, clinical pharmacology, clinical safety, toxicology, pharmaceutical science, project management, operations, commercial, intellectual property, modelling and simulation, epidemiology, regulatory affairs, health economics as well as very smart project leadership. For a molecule to become a medicine, each of these elements must come together and be integrated successfully. A seasoned “medicine developer” is someone who has not only deep technical knowledge, but importantly, an ability to integrate knowledge (and to ask for expert help as required) gained from substantial experience working within cross-functional development teams solving development problems. The process of applying science in this way is not a discipline which is taught in Universities, but rather is a skill and art which is only learned by experience.
In contrast to US and Europe, this profile of a development professional is under-recognized, under-valued and under-resourced in Australia. A major reason is Australia’s lack of critical mass in this area, a fact which unfortunately drives abroad Australians seeking to pursue leading edge experiences in drug development and commercialisation. A seldom celebrated fact is many Australian’s do incredibly well in these environments. Some have established themselves internationally as leaders in their respective fields, making significant contributions to human health. In fact, the next time you open a medicine’s patient information leaflet, you should reflect that it is quite likely an Australian abroad had a hand in creating the product. Unfortunately, when after years away, such talented Australians ask themselves the question, “What opportunity could I return home too?”, the answer is generally silence.
Can we fix this? What really strikes me, is the chicken and egg problem that we have in Australia.
On one hand we bemoan the fact that we are not good at commercialising the discoveries from our brilliant scientists. I would argue, that an important driver is lack of critical mass in “development and commercialisation” experience in Australia. On the other hand, we actually have a bale (thanks Wikipedia) of sea turtles with critically relevant experience wanting to come home. China has recognised the value of its diaspora, encouraging the return home of internationally experienced scientsist: Australia should do the same.
Now is the time for Australia to be investing in our success beyond the mining boom. I believe an important challenge for Australia, is determining how we can best access such “development and commercialisation” talent to support the existing strong discovery and innovation base our life sciences industry is reputed for. However, retaining the talent will also require creating the right soft infrastructure for the sector. Bring our turtles home but make sure they have any environment in which they may thrive!
Dr. Craig Rayner BPharm BPharmSc(Hons) PharmD MBA MAICD
Adjunct Associate Professor, Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Monash University
Director of Clinical Pharmacology, and previously Global Due Diligence Director at Roche
Personal Note: After many years abroad, I was extremely fortunate to be able to continue a global role in an International Pharmaceutical company working from my home in Melbourne with teams based in Europe, US and China. What amazes me, is that incredibly talented Australian’s are peppered throughout the international industry. If we could gather them all up and bring them home, I am sure we could assemble a faculty that could rival any major Pharmaceutical company.