Seeing a tool available in hospital emergency departments so that life-threatening sepsis can be diagnosed in a matter of hours, rather than the days that current testing takes: that’s a goal that QUT molecular microbiologist Professor Flavia Huygens is working towards.
Tissue engineer and QUT research associate Dr Christoph Meinert’s aim is to see the 3D cell culture technologies he helped develop used for personalised medicine. It would mean that cells from a patient’s tumour could be grown in the lab to generate micro tumours so that chemotherapy drugs could be tested on these micro tumours to determine the most effective treatment for that patient.
Bringing to patients any new diagnostic test, medical device or pharmaceutical is a long, complex and heavily regulated process – and not one that all scientists wish, or have the required know-how, to follow.
However, two programs run by QUT, which Professor Huygens and Dr Meinert have completed, are equipping researchers and entrepreneurs with skills to navigate the scientific, legal, financial, clinical and regulatory challenges involved in the commercialisation of pharmaceuticals and medical technologies.
The Bridge Program, which began in 2017, focuses on what’s needed to bring new medicines to patients. Its sister program BridgeTech, which started last year, is for those seeking to advance new medical devices.
Both programs are supported through MTPConnect (Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Growth Centre) with industry-matched funding, and involve consortia of pharmaceutical and medtech companies, universities and industry associations.
Each annual program involves online modules, seminars and intensive three-day training workshops. So far, 190 participants have completed the Bridge Program and 100 are enrolled in this year’s program, while 62 have completed BridgeTech and another 81 are enrolled for this year.
Funding through MTPConnect for Bridge and BridgeTech from the Federal Government’s $22.3 million Biomedical Translation Bridge initiative will see both programs continue for the next three years.
Professor Lyn Griffiths, Bridge and BridgeTech Director and Executive Director of QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said the programs addressed a clear need, helping fill gaps in knowledge and understanding of how to take research from the laboratory to patient care.
“These programs are an important initiative to further the Australian healthcare and medical technology industries,” she said.
“They have both enjoyed great success to date. From the first cohort of the Bridge Program alone we know that participants have initiated or completed 10 patents, been involved in eight startups, and have initiated or completed R&D contracts and licences.”
Faster diagnosis of sepsis
Professor Flavia Huygens was part of the inaugural Bridge Program and is working closely with industry partners to further advance, in collaboration with QUT, a new tool to diagnose sepsis. It’s something she began researching about 18 years ago at the Cooperative Research Centre for Diagnostics.
Sepsis is a serious body-wide response to bacteria in the bloodstream or other infection, and is the leading cause of death from infection worldwide. In Australia it kills about 5000 people each year. Current testing takes up to two days to confirm a diagnosis of suspected sepsis.
“My research focus has been on developing diagnostic tests for blood-borne infections and infectious diseases and this is the area where there is a need for timely diagnosis,” she said. “For hundreds of years we’ve been doing the same tests over and over.
“It is a major challenge to diagnose these life-threatening infections as soon as possible because we are in a constant battle with the bugs – they are always a step ahead of us. Time is critical.
“So if we can apply our understanding of what’s happening and get in early with a diagnosis, then the best available treatments can be implemented so that the best outcomes can be achieved.”
Taking part in the Bridge Program was a “reality check” Professor Huygens said, but also a confidence booster.
“The program certainly makes you aware of the challenges involved in taking a ‘product’ to market, but it was fantastic to meet and to hear from people who have started their own companies and succeeded, who may have had significant failures on the way, but have endured,” she said.
“And it was such a practical program with contact with the program’s industry partners, and during the intensive workshops, learning how to pitch an idea to a top pharmaceutical company.
“It’s definitely not just about being a clever scientist with a discovery and saying ‘pick me’.”
Personalised medicine for cancer patients
Dr Christoph Meinert, who took part in last year’s BridgeTech Program, is a director and one of the four co-founders of Gelomics, a spin-off venture from Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Training Centre in Additive Biomanufacturing.
The company produces biomaterials and kits for 3D cell culture and bioprinting, supplying about 20 local and overseas research institutions.
“Traditionally cells are cultured in a lab on two-dimensional plastic surfaces. This environment does not reflect the situation in the human body and forces cells to behave unnaturally,” Dr Meinert said.
“What we came up with was a way to grow small tissues, rather than just cells, so we are providing the opportunity for researchers to create more realistic 3D cell culture models that reflect cell behaviours in the body and provide more informative data.
“Our material is a gel-like substance very similar to the proteins that surround cells. One of its strengths is versatility. It can be modified to work with any application of cell types.
“At the moment we are supplying kits and materials to researchers, but in the longer term we want to see this used in personalised medicine.
“We would then be a medical device supplier, required to go through clinical trials, regulations, and there would be substantial costs involved.”
To get a better understanding of the journey, Dr Meinert and Gelomics Managing Director Dr Peter Levett (pictured together) enrolled in BridgeTech.
“Being part of the program gives you confidence about the path you have to take to achieve that goal,” Dr Meinert said.
“It was particularly helpful to us, meeting industry mentors who have been through similar stages in their careers, learning about funding arrangements and strategies, and how to pitch for private investment and apply for government grants.”
Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI)
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Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
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