The Big Picture: Helping our medical researchers turn discoveries into products to improve our health

It takes time and money to turn a scientific discovery into a medical product ready for use. To help medical researchers along this road, in 2017 the MRFF began funding medical research commercialisation. The Big Picture asks what impact our funds are having.

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Photo: Professor Jason Monty, centre, with the team that designed the Medihood McMonty patient isolation hood.

An urgent medical need

During the COVID-19 pandemic, intensive care specialist Dr Forbes McGain was worried about COVID-19 being transmitted through the air in his hospital. He wanted to stop patients with COVID-19 from infecting staff and other patients.

Forbes asked engineer Professor Jason Monty to help make a patient isolation hood to cover hospital beds and prevent the virus from spreading. 

Developing the prototype

At the University of Melbourne, Jason and a team of expert volunteers quickly developed a prototype patient isolation hood. But the hood could not be used in hospitals until the team proved that it worked. This required costly tests.

'Even at the height of the pandemic, it was difficult to get support financially,’ Jason remembers. ‘We did everything on very little money. People were helping out after work and on the weekends.'

Turning the prototype into a product

An MRFF funded award of $690,000 from the MedTech and Pharma Growth Centre (MTPConnect) helped the team move forward. The award allowed Jason to turn the prototype into a product to protect hospital staff and other patients.

'We used part of the grant to employ a team at Monash University to do live virus tests,' Jason says. ‘The tests proved the hood stopped the virus from spreading from the patient to the hospital air.

'We also carried out real world testing to show the hood is effective in a hospital environment. These tests gave us the data we needed to start manufacturing the hood.'

Reducing the risk of investment

Evan Evans, a 140-year-old company that co-designed the Australian flag, manufactured the hood. Jason and Forbes chose Evan Evans because the company had sewing machines to assemble the hoods.

However Evan Evans had never produced medical devices. This meant the company had to invest in a new quality management system. This upfront investment was a financial risk.

'They would not have been able to dedicate that kind of resource without some assistance,’ Jason says. ‘The MRFF grant money helped them complete that work.'

An effective and successful product

The patient isolation hood was named the Medihood McMonty. It was joint winner of WorkSafe Victoria’s Workplace Health and Safety Solution of the Year in 2021.

More than 1000 Medihoods are now used by over 150 hospital networks in Australia. 

'We helped reduce coronavirus transmission in hospitals with this device. That made health care workers feel safer doing their jobs,' Jason says. ‘It was a privilege to help those crucial workers be safer during the pandemic.

'Post pandemic, the Medihood is preventing other infectious diseases from spreading in hospitals. It does this at a much lower cost than the traditional negative pressure isolation rooms'.

'The impact of the Medihood McMonty has been more profound than we ever imagined that it was going to be,' Jason reflects.

Learning how to commercialise your research

As a result of the MRFF funding, Jason learned about:

  • commercialisation
  • how manufacturing businesses work
  • how things get sold
  • how to make pitches.

'Now I’ve got the commercialisation bug, which that hood didn’t stop me from catching!' Jason jokes.

Jason and Forbes are now working together to improve sustainability in health care. ‘There is an extraordinary amount of waste in our hospitals and huge gains to be made from reducing that waste. We can make hospitals run more efficiently, cheaply and with a better impact on society,’ Jason assesses. One of the first goals is to create reusable gowns and masks.

MycRx: producing a new cancer drug

Director of Operations Alison Thistlethwaite is part of a team developing a potential new cancer drug at the biotech company MycRx. The company is named after the Myc protein which regulates the life cycle of human cells.

'Normally cells divide, multiply and die. Cancer is caused by cells multiplying out of control. The Myc protein plays a key role in this excessive growth. Myc boosts signals that tell cells to grow,' Alison explains. 

'In more than half of human cancers the Myc protein is overexpressed. That means there is more Myc present in cancerous cells than normal. The more Myc there is, the more aggressive the cancer is.'

'Stopping Myc signals is one of the holy grails of cancer therapy,' Alison continues.  'A Myc inhibitor could be effective against many aggressive cancers which have poor survival rates.'

The long road to a Myc inhibitor cancer drug

In 2013 4 Melbourne scientists founded MycRx with the aim of discovering a molecule that inhibits Myc and developing the molecule into a cancer drug.

'Myc works by binding to partner proteins. Together Myc and its key partner bind to DNA and kick off the signals to cells to grow,' Alison says.

'We discovered molecules that interrupt Myc’s ability to bind to DNA. That stops the grow signals and potentially helps to stop the cancer cells growing.' At this stage, MycRx attracted investment from Brandon Capital.

Designing a better molecule

The researchers used these funds to design molecules to perform better than the molecules they discovered. They then needed further investment to pay the high costs of testing these improved molecules and developing the best molecule into a drug.

To raise further funds, they needed strong evidence that their molecules worked. In 2020 MTPConnect awarded MycRX a $1 million MRFF funded medical research commercialisation grant. This grant helped the company to produce the evidence they needed.

'The MRFF funding allowed us to increase the scope of the work we were doing,’ Alison says. ‘It enabled us to do more experiments such as testing the anti-cancer activity of our compounds in animals.'

A successful investment pitch

MycRx secured further investment from Brandon Capital and US venture capital partner Santé Ventures in November 2021. The company will use these funds to identify a suitable candidate for potential clinical trials.

'The MRFF grant funding was crucial to helping MycRx to secure this deal’, Alison states. ‘We might not have secured that investment without the extra evidence we produced with those funds.'

Growing Australia’s medical technology and pharmaceutical sector

The MRFF funding MycRx received also benefited Australia’s medical technology and pharmaceutical (MTP) sector. MycRx contracted MTP providers and collaborators to conduct experiments.

Alison says, 'We created a dialogue between our biotech company and academic institutes that don't always have a commercial focus. I think it was beneficial for both sides to work together towards our commercial goal.'

An MTP growth centre

Stuart Dignam is the CEO of MTPConnect, the growth centre which selected the McMonty Medihood and MycRx for funding. With MRFF support, this not-for-profit centre helps researchers and start-ups turn scientific discoveries into medical products.

Early-stage development funding reduces the risk for investors

'To get a medical product on the market usually takes 10-15-years and costs in the millions of dollars,' Stuart explains.

‘MTPConnect funds projects in early-stage development to the proof-of-concept phase. This reduces the risk taken by investors offering flow-on investment.

'We are active project managers,' Stuart adds. 'We connect funded projects with mentors who can help advance early-stage medical products'. We also give guidance and training on business skills. This gives our projects a better chance of commercialising their products.

'Early stage MRFF funded grants make a big difference to the success of product developers'.

Benefiting patients and the economy

'By supporting the development of new drugs and medical devices we are also growing the economy,' Stuart continues. 'The MTP sector is a key knowledge-intensive sector that is helping build Australia's future prosperity'.

'Through our MRFF funded projects and other activities, we’ve helped $1.3 billion dollars flow into the MTP sector,' he concludes. 'This return on investment is incredibly strong.

'From my perspective, the MRFF is truly a national asset.'

The Medical Research Commercialisation initiative is providing $450 million of funding over the next 10 years. This funding supports research discoveries as they progress from proof-of-concept to clinical implementation.

Find out more about the MRFF’s Medical Research Commercialisation initiative.

The Big Picture is an occasional MRFF projects series that gives a broader view of MRFF funding activities.

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