A Future to Strive For – Australia’s Medical Prowess

‘A healthy person has a thousand wishes, a sick person only one…’ [1]. Sadness permeates talks about healthcare expenditure yet it is very understandable that half of an average individual’s entire healthcare expenditure will occur in the senior years, with one third being spent in just the last few years of life.[2] The demand for healthcare services is projected to grow rapidly, owing to the world’s ageing population and emerging markets which will keep the field lucrative.[4] Unlike many other industries, the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals industry (MTP) is a forte of our country, and hence it makes sense to continue specialising in this area.[3]

However, we cannot underestimate the importance of branching out, as focusing on a single area can lead to over-reliance and is economically risky. Other developed nations such as Singapore and the USA have diversified their economy through trade and technology to guard against disturbances in the global market. On the other hand, Australia has become quite dependant on selling our natural resources and as a result is reliant on China, our biggest trading partner. Thus, when China is seeing a slow down; we are also impacted heavily. In recent times, the Australian dollar has dropped substantially indicating that the Covid-19 pandemic will see ramifications long after the epidemic passes. Politicians and the public are all adopting a speculative curiosity into what will result once we emerge on the other side.

Historically, Australia has never felt the crippling pressure that forced many resource poor countries down the high-tech route. In addition, we cannot enjoy the benefits of a considerable domestic market, unlike the USA. These two factors have contributed to Australia’s small manufacturing and technology sector. Yet changing circumstances may force us to compete against other nations in this sector, if relying significantly on natural resources becomes untenable. Uncertainty permeates the future; nevertheless, exciting developments will arise.

In this article, topical points from CSIRO’s future report on MTP will be discussed. An overarching concern is Australia’s struggle to convert good research into successful commercial endeavours.[4] Bureaucratic causes include complexity dealing with Australia’s highly independent states, drawbacks in the national regulatory authority (the Therapeutic Goods Administration) and slow commencement times for trials. Operations-wise, ‘industry consultations and a review of the literature’ point out that rates of collaboration could be higher, that Australian researcher participation in industry is half that of the OECD average and that many researchers are allured to better prospects overseas.

Potential solutions are to a) involve scientists substantially when forging public policy related to MTP e.g. smoothing out the clumsy varying-state-by-state legislature b) compensate researchers more appropriately for the work they do, and offer financial assistance to encourage experts to pursue promising business ventures.[5]

The need for increased commercial success must be stressed because this advancement underpins the public’s confidence in supporting research projects; the Australian public hardly wishes to see other nations reap most of the rewards of our innovation.[6]

CSIRO identifies pharmaceutical development as one of the four key growth areas of MTP. For context, pharmaceuticals comprise around two thirds of all MTP revenue. Australian drug companies have yielded great results. Take the Institute of Drug Technology Limited (IDT), established in 1975. The drug Temozolomide, successful at improving survival rates for brain cancer patients, was created by them.[7] IDT is based in the unassuming suburb of Boronia and is representative of how Australia’s MTP capacity, while small, often stands out in terms of overall quality. [8] A striking result of this quality can be observed in our clinical trials sector: we appeal to Chinese companies with our transparency vital for FDA approval, while we appeal to the Americans with lower costs and prompt approvals. Our MTP industry can be highly competitive on the world stage and is a testament to the decades of hard work from and experience of Australian researchers.[4]

Yet as JFK highlighted, we who lead must continue our growth to maintain that lead. Quality has been our strength and should continue to be the distinct factor that separates Australian products from cheaper, burgeoning overseas competitors, stated by CSIRO. It is also reassuring that there is a robust capital backing for our biomedical projects through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), which is projected to be worth $20 billion by 2021. This means Australia will possess the “biggest medical research endowment fund in the world”.[9]

Australia’s reputation in the biomedical sciences should be a source of pride for us all. It is pivotal that Australia’s scientific and business acumen work together to cement our involvement from start to end in the MTP industry. Seeing the prospects, you may even feel inspired to work in some form in this industry, especially if you find yourself engaging with a range of disciplines at university.

[1] R, B. [A healthy person has a thousand wishes, a sick person only one]. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5186710

[2] The Lifetime Distribution of Health Care Costs. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361028/

[3] International careers report: Australia—punching above its weight. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/features/2006/09/international-careers-report-australia-punching-above-its-weight

[4] Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Roadmap – CSIRO. Retrieved from https://www.csiro.au/en/Do-business/Futures/Reports/Medical-Technologies-and-Pharmaceuticals-Roadmap

[5] INQUIRY INTO RESEARCH TRAINING AND RESEARCH WORKFORCE ISSUES IN AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES – The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Retrieved from https://www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=isi/research/subs/sub34.pdf

[6] Green, R. (2015). How Australia got left behind in manufacturing and innovation. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/how-australia-got-left-behind-in-manufacturing-and-innovation/6163528

[7] Drug discovery and development – Invest Victoria. Retrieved from http://www.invest.vic.gov.au/opportunities/medical-technologies-biotechnology-and-pharmaceuticals/drug-discovery-and-development

[8] Temozolomide | The Brain Tumour Charity. Retrieved from https://www.thebraintumourcharity.org/brain-tumour-diagnosis-treatment/treating-brain-tumours/adult-treatments/chemotherapy/temozolomide/

[9] Federal budget 2014 – Full speech. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/national/federal-budget-2014–full-speech-20140513-3887i.html