WEHI launches spinout company to tackle hard-to-treat cancers

Wednesday, 19 June, 2024

WEHI launches spinout company to tackle hard-to-treat cancers

Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler yesterday announced the launch of Ternarx — a new spinout company from WEHI that is dedicated to finding new treatments for hard-to-treat cancers.

While scientists have uncovered many of the drivers of cancer, about 80% of all disease-causing proteins have been considered ‘undruggable’. Ternarx aims to change this statistic through the development of so-called targeted protein degrader (TPD) technology.

Unlike conventional drugs that only inhibit the activity of proteins, TPDs can target and destroy disease-causing proteins, completely removing the proteins from the cancer. Ternarx is the first company of its kind in Australia focusing on the development of TPD medicines and technology.

In 2023, the Medical Research Future Fund’s Frontier Health and Medical Research initiative awarded $15 million in funding to establish the Australian Centre for Targeted Therapeutics (ACTT) — a collaboration between WEHI, the Children’s Cancer Institute and Monash University. WEHI has now spun out Ternarx to form a globally competitive biotech company and commercialise the ACTT technology.

“It is an honour to officially launch Ternarx — a significant and exciting addition to Australia’s growing, high-quality medical and biotech sector,” Butler said. “The technology it is pursuing has huge potential to create the next generation of treatments for cancer and other diseases that are currently untreatable.

WEHI Director Professor Ken Smith described TPD technology as “one of the most exciting advances in drug discovery and development”, and the establishment of Ternarx as “a testament to the wealth of scientific knowledge that exists on our shores and our ability to remain at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies that have real potential to make a difference to our communities”.

“We thank the MRFF for continually backing the nation’s brightest researchers, helping us to bridge the critical gap between discovery and translation and ensuring that we can confidently tackle our hardest health challenges,” he said.

Ternarx will initially focus on developing new treatments for neuroblastoma and prostate cancer. Neuroblastoma is a childhood cancer that claims more lives of children under five than any other cancer, while prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Australian men.

“Neuroblastoma and some forms of prostate cancer urgently need new treatments, as evidenced by poor patient outcomes,” said Ternarx CEO Dr Joanne Boag.

“TPD technology opens up new avenues to attack these and other hard-to-treat cancers by delivering precision treatment options.

While the initial focus will be cancer, Ternarx’s TPD technology has the potential to be applied to a range of disease-causing proteins, including those associated with currently untreatable inflammatory diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

“This technology could revolutionise treatments for the millions of people in Australia and around the world who continue to live with notoriously difficult-to-treat diseases, including cancer and autoimmune conditions,” Boag said.

Ternarx will leverage some of Australia’s top cancer experts and research to progress new TPD treatments towards clinical trials, bringing together a core team with deep research expertise as well as biopharmaceutical drug discovery and management experience. With further investment, the company has the potential to deliver significant revenue into Australia through co-development and licensing deals, with the TPD market size forecast to grow to US$3.3 billion by 2030.

Image caption: Ternarx project lead Dr Luke Duncan, Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler, WEHI Director Professor Ken Smith and Ternarx CEO Dr Joanne Boag tour the company’s purpose-built facilities at the WEHI Biotechnology Centre. Image credit: WEHI.

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