No plans to slow down for Austin's retiring director

By Tanya Hollis
Thursday, 30 May, 2002

When Nobel medicine laureate Dr George Snell accepted his 1980 award for identifying genetically determined cell surface immune response regulators, six peers received his thanks. One was an Australian.

Retiring director of the Austin Research Institute (ARI) Prof Ian McKenzie worked with Snell in the Jackson Laboratory, Maine, contributing to research that led to the discovery of surface molecules on antigens.

It is not McKenzie volunteering information on his copious achievements, but rather deputy director Prof Mark Hogarth, who has the task of taking the reins when the incumbent director departs next month.

Hogarth said Snell was not the sort of person to give out accolades lightly or to put a researcher's name on a paper to simply be nice. "He was tough, and for Ian to be recognised like that in his Nobel speech was an outstanding achievement," Hogarth said.

He said McKenzie, who turns 65 this year and displays no interest in slowing down, had contributed enormously as the ARI's inaugural director since 1991.

Hogarth said McKenzie had proven to be ahead of his time by instilling in his staff a sense of commercial outcomes beyond basic science, and by filing biotech patents as far back as the early 1980s.

"Certainly he's brought scientific vision, which is about doing quality basic research and getting it to something applied and getting it to patients," Hogarth said.

Challenging dogma

"The thing about Ian is that he's very smart and he is willing to challenge the entrenched dogma and is not really driven by scientific fashion. He likes to get on with the job and is really focussed on getting things out in the local scene."

Although he is stepping down as director of the ARI, McKenzie is unlikely to truly retire from research until his dream of seeing pig kidneys used in human transplants is realised.

In fact, at an age when most people would be looking forward to days spent on a beach or golf course, McKenzie has just started up a new company called XenoTrans to concentrate on achieving his ultimate goal.

His lifetime passion began with a PhD in antibody-mediated rejection of transplants, which he completed at the University of Melbourne's Department of Medicine.

"I am old enough to have been a resident doctor at the Royal Melbourne Hospital when people frequently died from renal failure," McKenzie said. "I have clear visions of a 14-year-old boy who took four weeks to die from renal failure because there wasn't a transplant organ available."

McKenzie came from the University of Melbourne to head the new ARI - bringing 35 researchers with him - when Austin and Repatriation Medical Centre president Harry Hearn decided the hospital must have its own research institute.

"I was drawn by the idea of having greater independence than we would have got at the university," McKenzie said, while conceding that at the time he had thought the term "infrastructure" referred to building roads.

He quickly learned that about half an institute's research funding went to infrastructure, with the amount increasing more each year along with advances in medical technologies.

"About 20 per cent of that comes from the State government and for the other 30 per cent, the director has to go out and beg and borrow from benefactors," he said.

"A good 40 per cent of my time is spent in trying to get money, rather than on research."

Financial backing

McKenzie said the situation, whereby there was no defined source of infrastructure funds for independent medical research institutes, needed to be remedied by the Federal government.

He said top scientists were being distracted from their work in a constant quest for financial backing, leading to a situation where medical institutes such as the ARI could be at risk of disappearing.

In the quest for financial security for the ARI's immunology projects - which included transplantation, arthritis research and breast cancer vaccine work - the institute became involved in the ill-fated federal R&D Syndicates.

A good idea at the time with the promise of a 150 per cent rebate for research investment, the government stopped the incentive after a few years then demanded some of the rebate be handed back retrospectively. Several cases involving the syndicates, including the ARI's, are currently before the courts.

McKenzie said that while the money from the syndicates was still available, the ARI set up a company called Ilexus to be the institute's commercial arm. But when the money dried up, the institute soon found it was unable to commercialise its projects alone.

He said that after 18 months of presentations, during which he tried unsuccessfully to secure funds for Ilexus, he came across Prima Biomed (ASX: PRR) - a development company that has gone on to commercialise several of the ARI's projects.

McKenzie is an executive director on the Prima board and said he planned to step up his consultancy role with the company after leaving his post with the ARI.

But it is xenotransplantation that puts the sparkle in McKenzie's eye and, with XenoTrans excluded from the ARI's agreement with Prima Biomed, he is now busy trying to secure private funding to get the business started.

He had hoped to apply for AusIndustry's R&D Start funding before it was suspended last month, and has applied for a third round Biotechnology Innovation Fund (BIF) grant.

Potential support

He has also held preliminary meetings with 10 groups to gauge potential support, estimating that the company would need $2 million a year for three years to produce a second group of transgenic pigs whose kidneys were suitable for transplant into baboons.

The first stage of the project led to successful pig to baboon kidney transplant last year, with rejection avoided for 30 days.

McKenzie's fear, however, is that a lack of courage among investors would lead to impatience for results that could not be rushed.

"It will be five to 10 years before there will be anything approaching successful human transplants, but there are multiple hurdles in there," McKenzie said.

"We're halfway over the first hurdle, which is getting over the problem of hyperacute rejection, but we're only just starting to see the other hurdles."

Despite this, McKenzie maintains that XenoTrans, along with the other research work coming out of the ARI, have a strong chance of yielding major commercial benefits.

"The important thing is that these will lead to benefits to patients, which is still the major aim of the institute."

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