Biopartnering Down Under

Australia is a fertile field for biopharmaceutical research in need of overseas partners to help bring breakthroughs to market.
Mar 01, 2006
Volume 19, Issue 3

Helen Hill
Australia has a long history of cutting-edge medical research that continues to the present day. In many ways, the importance of Australia's contribution extends far beyond what might be expected from a country of 20 million people. According to the Australian Society for Medical Research, Australia conducts 2.5% of the world's medical research and contributes 2.9% of all global scientific publication, despite housing only 0.3% of the world's population.

The country is the top-ranking biotechnology location in the Asia-Pacific region and number six in the world, according to Ernst & Young's publication, "The Asia Pacific Perspective, Global Biotechnology Report 2004." Australia's pharmaceutical industry as a whole turns over approximately US$10.7 billion a year and spends some US$384 million annually on research and development.

Australia is a major player in world research in areas such as cancer, human reproductive medicine, infectious diseases, immunology, neurosciences, and stem cells. Its particular biotech strengths include heart-assist technology, proteomics, carbohydrate chemistry, inflammatory treatments, and skin therapies.


In October 2005, world headlines announced that an experimental vaccine had been developed to prevent high-grade cervical pre-cancers and non-invasive cervical cancers (CIN 2/3 and AIS) associated with human papilloma virus (HPV) types 16 and 18. The Phase III clinical trials of Merck & Co., Inc.'s Gardasil—which included more than 12,000 women in 13 countries in a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study—achieved a 100% efficacy rate.

What many did not realize about this exciting breakthrough was the role Australian biotechnical research played in developing the vaccine. Professor Ian Frazer at the University of Queensland's Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research discovered HPV recombinant virus-like particles (VLPs), which obviated the need to grow HPV in the laboratory. The university began a collaboration with CSL, a Melbourne-based pharmaceutical company, which licensed the technology to Merck & Co. in 1995.

Australia's medical research prowess was demonstrated in another dramatic way in October 2004 when two Australians won the Nobel Prize for medicine. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren's research discovered that peptic ulcers were caused by a common gut bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, not stress.

Figure 1. New IPOs and biotech company listings, by quarter
These men were the latest in a distinguished list of Australian Nobel Prize winners. In 1945, Howard Walter Florey was awarded the prize for his discovery of the curative effects of penicillin against a range of infectious diseases, which helped save millions of lives. John Eccles joined the ranks in 1963 for his pioneering work in neurophysiology. Frank Macfarlane Burnet's discovery of acquired immunological tolerance garnered him the award in 1960 and Peter Doherty's advances in the specificity of the cell-mediated immune defense in 1996 contributed significantly to the field of immunology.


Australia is home to hundreds of biotechnology companies, universities, and research centers that are fertile seedbeds for medical breakthroughs. Bringing these breakthroughs to market frequently requires the muscle of global pharmaceutical investment capital and access to markets. This makes Australia one of the most desirable countries in the world for biopartnering.

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