WA feature: Could biotech be the west's next gold rush?

By Pete Young
Tuesday, 28 May, 2002



Western Australia's bio-industry faces more than its share of hurdles. It is isolated by geography, limited by population and dependent on a State government focussed on traditional resources and agriculture sectors.

Against that, it enjoys a number of strengths ranging from solid foundations in medical research to a lively mix of more than a dozen private and listed biotech businesses, including a unique layer of mining-by-bacteria companies

It also boasts a penumbra of research institutes surrounding each of WA's three pre-eminent universities, the University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, and Curtin University of Technology. The linkages between those institutes, the universities and WA's teaching hospitals are growing in number and sophistication.

Last but not least, there is the State's buoyant, can-do culture.

Late to the party It may be needed because the Western Australian government is arriving very late at the biotech party. In terms of recognising and encouraging the potential of bioscience as an economic multiplier, it lags far behind the big biotech states of Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

Unlike that leading trio and its closest neighbour, South Australia, Western Australia has yet to enact a specific bioindustry policy or launch a dedicated bio-innovation funding program.

The government has made spot contributions of $300,000 here or $500,000 there to research institutes and one-off infrastructure grants such as the $11 million it contributed two years ago to help build the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

Measured against the coordinated, big-ticket activities of the Big Three, however, the WA government's efforts are most charitably described as modest.

Potential investors in WA's bio-agricultural sector have also been given pause by the Labor government's ambiguous attitude toward genetically modified organisms and GM-free zones.

In pre-election policy statements, Labor sounded a cautionary note on genetically modified organisms. It did not say it would create GM-free zones but indicated that in the absence of certainty about the impact of GMOs it would not rule out GM-free zones in WA.

Following the election, it circulated a public discussion paper on attitudes to GM-free zones which was closed off in February. Agriculture Minister Kim Chance is expected to make a statement in the next few weeks based on a summary of responses to the issue.

Western Australian agricultural associations are far from anti-GM in the state. Both WA Farmers and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association support research into gene modification to boost farmers' margins.

They say they see no reason why GM crops can't co-exist with conventional and organic production systems. Basically, they reject any policy which would prevent farmers from using the methods best-suited to their individual farms, be it GM or non-GM.

Says Ian Longson, executive director of the agriculture department's industry programs division: "The WA government is not anti-GM but is taking a cautious approach to it."

In any event, definitive government action on the GM issue will have to wait until the Western Australian Parliament passes complementary legislation to the Commonwealth's Gene Technology Bill 2000 bill, and that debate is far from finished.

Glimmer of light There are glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. A biotech unit has been created within the Ministry of Industry and Technololgy while Premier Geoff Gallop has created the first Premier's Science Council and established a $50 million science fund to finance initiatives.

Bio-industry has been given a commanding presence on the science council with Lions Eye Institute Director Prof Ian Constable appointed as its chairman and Telethon Child Health Research Institute Director Fiona Stanley is a council member.

Meanwhile, WA's major bio-sector players who feel starved of government support are falling back on a do-it-yourself approach.

The latest example is the recently-formed WA Biomedical R&D Alliance, an self-orchestrated attempt by four topline WA research institutes to foster collaborative links and provide leadership-by-example for further development of the sector.

The four organisations in the alliance are: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, WA Biomed Research Institute, Lions Eye Institute and the WA Institute for Medical Research.

At one level, alliance players are seeking better ways to pool their resources for research programs. On another level, they are hoping their example will raise the State government's awareness of the sector and provide bureaucrats with a blueprint for coming up with some bio-stimulative initiatives of its own.

One danger for Western Australia is a growing tendency for cashed-up eastern state bio-clusters to wave their wallets at key WA biotech researchers or research groups.

The director of one WA institute working in a hot-button biotech research area is known to have fielded offers to shift his entire staff across to an eastern state whose government is considerably more generous to its bio-industries than WA.

Offsetting that, a number of ex-residents are returning to WA after years spent in the eastern states or overseas.

Among them is Prof Simon Carroll, who directs the activities of 65 scientists at the WA Biotechnology Research Institute (WABRI) and also chairs the WA branch of industry association AusBiotech.

Carroll spent a decade working in Victoria's technology commercialisation industry.

Wearing his AusBiotech hat, Carroll notes that Western Australia, like its eastern counterparts, has a legacy of activity in medical and biomedical research.

To date, however, the WA government has largely failed in the directed conversion of those research strengths into commercial outcomes.

"It would be fantastic if the government would show leadership in driving not just research but industrial activity," he says.

Pre-seed and seed funding is very much on the minds of WA universities seeking to facilitate commercialisation of their research IP.

The University of Western Australia's year-old Office of Industry and Innovation, for example, has closed four licensing deals with European and US companies in the year since it has been created. UWA is also establishing a "kickstart" fund which will disburse up to $50,000 as pre-seed funding to more than ten projects which appear to have commercial potential.

Director Dr Andy Sierakowsi says he recognises that the State government can't single-handedly set up a biotech industry in WA. However he believes it could start by addressing the state's poor record in attracting Biotechnology Innovation Fund (BIF) grants and successful Centre of Excellence bids.

Paul D'Sylva, director of Murdoch University's R&D Division, is upbeat about WA's prospects of winning future bids even though the level of government support to date "is not commensurate with that coming out of Queensland and Victoria."

Murdoch's biotechnology focus is directed toward agricultural and animal research and bioinformatics and it has generated five biotech spinouts over the past three years. Research institutes with which it has close ties include SABC, WAIMR, WABRI, CBBC and the Centre for High Throughput Agricultural Genetic Analysis (CHAGA).

WA's research centres Key WA bioscience research organisations include:

  • Lions Eye Institute - The leading eye institution in the southern hemisphere, researchers at the Perth-based institution work in the fields of biomaterials, polymer, biomedical photonics and lasers, molecular ophthalmology, and stemcell research. Its director, Prof Ian Constable, also chairs the Premier's Science Council.
  • Telethon Institute for Child Health Research - A multi-disciplinary institute that boasts some 200 researchers and an annual research budget of about $11 million. Its interests include asthma, cancer, leukemia and new drug development. It is about to spin-off its first commercial company, Phylogica Ltd, whose focus will be on peptide drug screening. Director is Prof Fiona Stanley.
  • WA Biomedical Research Institute (WABRI) - Concentrates on drug discovery programs which focus on candidates effective against parasitic diseases, cancers and diabetes. It has 65 researchers and is a joint venture between the State government, Curtin and Murdoch universities. Simon Carroll, its director, is also chairman of the WA branch of industry association Ausbiotech.
  • WA Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) - Established four years ago by UWA, Royal Perth Hospital's Medical Research Foundation, and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital's Foundation of Advanced Medical Research, its core research areas are neurobiology and neurotrauma, cancer and immunology, cardiovascular and respiratory, and metabolism/musculoskeletal. In 2002, it is funding 30 new medical research projects for $4 million over the next three years.
  • State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre (SABC) - The major centre for agricultural biotech in Western Australia. It operates as a research hotel to deliver major platform technologies to researchers and has spawned agbiotech companies such as Grain Biotech Australia. Last year 170 researchers used the SABC and its research spend topped $5 million. Its director is Prof Mike Jones.
  • Centre for Bioinformatics and Biological Computing (CBBC) - Located at Murdoch University, the centre has a teaching and research staff of about nine, headed by Assoc Prof Matt Bellgard. Current research includes genomic diversity and new algorithms for treating data emerging from gene sequencing research.
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