PM Prize win for cancer drug discovery

16 October 2019
Key Researchers
Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Professor Andrew Roberts
(L-R) Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene, Associate Professor Peter Czabotar and Professor Andrew Roberts have won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.
The discovery and development of a breakthrough anti-cancer drug has seen four senior scientists from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute win the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Professor Andrew Roberts were recognised for their roles in the discovery and development of the anti-cancer drug venetoclax. The medicine is used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), the most common leukaemia diagnosed in Australia.

Venetoclax is the first of a new class of medicines to become routinely available for clinical use and is currently being accessed by thousands of patients in Australia and around the world. It avoids many of the side effects usually seen during chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which is a significant benefit to patients and how they can tolerate cancer treatment. More than 150 clinical trials are currently underway to investigate venetoclax for use in CLL and other cancers.

The researchers received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation this evening at Parliament House, where they were congratulated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews.

A triumph of science and translation

The development of venetoclax began with a landmark discovery made at the Institute in the 1980s that a protein called BCL-2 helps cancer cells survive.

In partnership with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, and AbbVie, the team discovered and developed venetoclax in a remarkably short time, taking less than seven years from its discovery to the first regulatory approval.

Professor Roberts is Cancer Research and Treatments theme leader at the Institute, a haematologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter Mac and a professor at the University of Melbourne. He led the world-first clinical trials of venetoclax in Melbourne and said venetoclax was replacing chemotherapy for many patients in Australia and worldwide.

“This really is a triumph of basic science and translational innovation, enabling the generation and rapid regulatory approval of a product that is significantly beneficial for many people,” Professor Roberts said.

Dedication and powerful collaboration

The four researchers brought their leadership and individual expertise in biology, drug discovery, preclinical testing and clinical trials to the project, making a series of discoveries that were key to the development of the anti-cancer treatment.

Molecular cell biologist Professor Huang said collaboration was key to the breakthrough cancer drug.

“When people come from different backgrounds and take a multi-dimensional view of the same human problem, it delivers a much richer perspective,” Professor Huang said.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said he felt enormously privileged to witness the team’s deep dedication and drive to translate the scientific discovery into a new cancer therapy that has already helped many patients worldwide.

“This drug discovery story is a powerful demonstration of Australia’s ability to translate fundamental discoveries into a new class of drugs through international collaboration with major pharmaceutical companies,” Professor Hilton said.

“The exceptional and innovative contributions of the researchers involved showcase the direct benefit to the economy, and to society, of investing in Australian medical research.”

With its dramatic efficacy and generally minimal side-effects, venetoclax was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2016 and the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia in 2017. In 2019 venetoclax was listed on the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are Australia’s most prestigious awards for outstanding achievements in scientific research and research-based innovation, and for excellence in science teaching.

Read more about the venetoclax.

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