Minister Butler doorstop in Melbourne - 25 July 2023

Read the transcript of Minister Butler's doorstop on the opening of the expanded cell and gene therapy manufacturing facility at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre; CAR T cell therapy; MRFF funding.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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JOURNALIST: Minister, can you just tell us what will the impact of CAR T cells have on dealing with cancer in the future?
MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: CAR T cell therapy is giving new hope to patients for whom traditional treatment just isn’t working. It's an extraordinary new treatment opportunity. What we have now here at Peter Mac is manufacturing capability. What we've relied upon up until now is T cells being extracted from Australian patients and sent overseas to North America or to Europe to be modified and then shipped back to Australia. That takes time, during which time periods conditions obviously worsen. Having a sovereign capability here - self-reliance here - in Australia is an extraordinary step change. Funding from the Commonwealth Government has enabled Peter Mac to deliver that to Australia and hopefully also to the region.
JOURNALIST: How much greater is the capacity?  
BUTLER: It's lifted local manufacturing capability by several volumes. We know now that 2,000 doses of CAR T cell therapy will be able to be made here at Peter Mac. Not just used for Victoria but used for patients right around Australia, and they tell me here as well, with enough capability to export to the region. This is the only manufacturing capability of its type in the entire southern hemisphere - that is globally significant.
JOURNALIST: Will this revolutionise treatment for cancer?
BUTLER: This is a revolution that's still underway. These new treatments are obviously at the moment applicable to blood cancers, like leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma. We’ve got new treatments coming on board all the time being considered by our experts for approval here in Australia. And experts here at Peter Mac say that in the future, they're likely to be applicable to solid tumours as well. We're really just at the beginning of a completely new phase of treatments, these cellular immunotherapies, particularly CAR T cell therapy, are delivering new hope and saving lives for patients who otherwise would lose them.
JOURNALIST: And you're aware of the case of Geoff Nyssen, he’s once again been rejected. Is there any intervention you can do to help Geoff?
BUTLER: Geoff has made an application for support to take treatment overseas, there is an arm's length process that's been in existence for many years now in Australia. There's an expert clinical assessment of a patient's survivability for overseas trigger. Geoff has gone, as I understand, through the first step. There is now the review process, or an appeal process, that's open to him. I am hoping he avails himself of that. My advice is that there's another step that he can take to have that decision reviewed by the Chief Medical Officer and I'm confident that he and his clinicians will take that.
JOURNALIST: Is there any intervention you can do? 
BUTLER: I don’t believe there has ever been any political involvement in that. Taxpayers would understand that the best way to apply this sort of system is not at the hands of politicians, but at the hands of experts - clinical assessment by some of the best clinicians in the country. There should though, always be good review and appeal processes. I understand Mr Nyssen is going to be able to avail himself of that and I really wish him all the best at an extraordinarily difficult time.
JOURNALIST: Minister we are here amongst the fruits of scientists being allowed to do science. Leading scientists say that the Medical Research Future Fund, under the Coalition was systemically pork barrelled. You've said that science should be above politics. This is in your portfolio. What are you going to do to ensure that this fund isn't used in this way again?  
BUTLER: For some time now I've had a process underway to consider the governance and administration of the MRFF: the Medical Research Future Fund. I have had a view that there was a question over the level of involvement by, essentially, Ministers and Ministerial officers, as well as the Department. That review process which I commissioned some time ago, is still underway. There was an award consultation undertaken by the NHMRC and the Department at my instigation. That consultation process finished last week. There are many hundreds of submissions that are now being collated and I look forward to the next stage of that process where we can consider the future administration arrangements for this fund, as well as the traditional fund operated by the NHMRC.
What the MRFF has done, and this was a process I initiated more than a decade ago, is to substantially lift the research investment from the Commonwealth Government into the terrific precincts like here in Parkville in Victoria, but we do have to make sure that it has the confidence of the scientific community, and taxpayers who after all, put about $1.5 billion dollars into medical research funding from a Commonwealth level. I've got an open mind at the moment, but I initiated the review around its governance and administration because I've always been a very strong supporter of the arm’s length, peer review process - a scientific process - of assessing applications from researchers, whether that's priority driven or investigator initiated, and I intend to consider the results in the consultation process I've undertaken, and make decisions in due course.
JOURNALIST: This fund spent more than half a billion dollars on ad hoc grants, some of those went to marginal seats to build centres that never even got built. Are you going to be asking the Department to inquire about these older grants, or launching an inquiry?
BUTLER: We’re at the moment considering the consultation process that has seen a lot of investment of time and energy by busy researchers who are keen to chart the best future course for research spending in this country. That's the focus I have right now. We'll be making decisions about the future arrangements, governance and administration arrangements for the MRFF in the near future.
JOURNALIST: The NHMRC doesn't fund charities. The MRFF does spend about $100 million on it. Do you think that that's appropriate? Or would you like to see the MRFF be restricted from funding charities?
BUTLER: As I said, we've had hundreds of submissions to this process that I instigated a little while ago. I want to have a have a look at that before we consider next steps.
JOURNALIST: Minister, one last question for you. Obviously, you still retain powers under the Act to hand out money directly from the MRFF, unlike the NHMRC. Have you formed a view as to whether that's appropriate or not?
BUTLER: We've not taken any decisions since we've been in Government to put in place the sorts of ad hoc grants that were that were published in recent media coverage, and our focus is on putting in place the most robust governance and administration arrangements in the MRFF for the future. Thank you.

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