ACT feature: ACT biotech's big players

By Melissa Trudinger
Wednesday, 29 May, 2002

As one of the big players in the ACT's biotech scene, the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) has already spun out at least two companies. Biotron, listed on the ASX, is one, working on two cancer diagnostic tests and a number of therapeutic agents including an antiviral for treatment of HIV.

Phenomix is a genetics company formed as a joint venture between the Medical Genome Centre at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) and the Department of Genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. It has facilities in both Canberra and San Diego.

The company has developed a system for rapid identification and validation of genetic targets for disease. Rather than using the gene to identify the pathway, the company uses a 'forward genetics' approach to use physiological models to identify the genes involved.

Prof Chris Goodnow, director of the Medical Genome Centre at the John Curtin School of Medical Research and Phenomix's chief scientific officer, says that the company developed out of a collaboration between the Medical Genome Centre and GNF.

"We realised a couple of years ago that this new way of approaching gene function was working," he says. Goodnow explained that the approach gave Phenomix a potential opportunity to use the approach to develop drug targets.

In March this year, the company secured $US12 million in an over-subscribed series A investment round, with the option to draw on a further $US20 million - the largest start-up financing deal that an Australian company has ever made.

"Phenomix caused a lot of excitement here," says JCSMR director Prof Judith Whitworth.

Whitworth says that a number of the researchers at the school had industry backing for their research. "Even though we are here to do proper good research and train the next generation of students, our philosophy is to take advantage of opportunities," she says.

ANU's Research School for Biological Sciences is also no slouch when it comes to biotechnology. It's a member of the CRCs for Biological Control of Pest Animals (the Pest CRC), for Tropical Plant Protection and for Sustainable Rice Production (the Rice CRC), all of which have biotechnology research.

The Pest CRC has spun off Pestat, which is commercialising its biological control products, which are based around control of pest animal fertility. The company was one of the recipients of a BIF grant last year, and also received assistance from the ACT Research and Development Grants Scheme.

Bioengineering is another strength of the Research School of Biological Sciences, where Prof Mandyam Srinivasan and his team are using the fundamental biology of how insects see and navigate to develop navigational software, 360 degree lens systems and diagnostic tools for human visual diseases like glaucoma.

And in the environmental area, Prof Graham Farquhar is using isotopic methods to identify new plant strains, which may lead to the development of new grain varieties and also to the development of robotic systems for monitoring and selection of variations in plant growth.

The Biotechnology Research Unit in the Research School for Biological Sciences actively represents the intellectual property of the institution with the assistance of ANU's commercialisation company Anutech.

Another institute to keep an eye on is the National Health Sciences Centre, a research institute centred around Canberra's research and teaching hospitals. The centre is focussed on the development of innovative clinical research and drug discovery and is also involved in commercialisation activities.

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