By Tony Peacock, CEO of the CRC Association
Many CRCs have to be able to paint the vision of growth for their industry. There’s a certain skill to doing that for MPs, Senators and Advisers in a busy Parliamentary week. For Sherry Kothari, the CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing CRC (CTM CRC), there were two added degrees of difficulty: she was describing a vision for an industry that doesn’t yet exist in Australia and last week in the Australian Parliament was, well, more like crazy than just busy.
Ten meetings were planned for both Parliament and the Department of Industry. The CRC Association likes to brief the Government, Opposition and public service if we can. Our members know that a Sitting Week is not the best time to give in-depth briefings to Ministers because the bells are likely to ring and meetings get cut short. But they do represent a good opportunity for briefing a larger number of people. In a new area like cell therapy manufacturing, we decided it was best to try and get the message out to as many as possible.
Cell therapy is the use of living cells to treat diseases in patients. Often those cells are derived from the same patient; they may be genetically manipulated and grown in large numbers before being put back into the patient. CTM CRC is only four years old, and some of the cell types they currently work with were not in play at the time the CRC was established. Now these cells are offering extraordinary treatments for a range of diseases, including cancers. Clinical trials have proven so successful in some cases that the word “cure” is sometimes getting used where only treatment or management was available in the past, at best.
With the first market approval for a cancer cell therapy expected in the United States in around six months, the industry has to face up to the significant challenge of cost. The very exciting results are in clinical trials where the cost per treatment is not a major factor. But once approved, governments around the world will come under enormous pressure to provide the therapies to their citizens. Cell therapies should not be something available only to the very wealthy.
Manufacturing of cells into volumes sufficient for therapeutic use is a major challenge as well as a major opportunity. This requires automation specialists working with biologists. CTM CRC was established to address these cost issues, improve efficiency and develop effective methods for delivery of therapies. Logistics is also a major issue in dealing with living cells. A whole raft of new skills will be needed for the sector, requiring new and innovative training.
Back in Parliament, Sherry was able to lay out a compelling case for the opportunities in this field, but also highlighting some of the challenges. We were received very well, despite some timetabling changes and stand-ins. Monitors of the reps chambers were politely turned down as the sound level in the chamber went up. We found ourselves at the exit to the House of Representatives after the government had lost a vote and confusion reigned for a while. It wasn’t until learning about it that night on the news that we understood the slightly shell shocked looks!
In a competitive environment, it is vital that health and industry policy intersect to reduce the barriers. CRCs often find themselves in the role of integrating between different areas of interest and cell therapy manufacturing is a good example. Innovation is much more than discovery and at a sectoral or industry level, requires coordination of many parts. This is the promise of the really successful CRCs – to change the whole landscape of an area and to change the lives of people around the world.
Comments from Sherry Kothari, CEO of the CRC for Cell Therapy Manufacturing
The week I spent in Parliament was most definitely busy, and at times crazy, but the opportunity to raise awareness of cell therapies was not one to be missed. I spent the week meeting with various ministers and advisors, highlighting the importance of the industry, and was very pleased with the reception received. Those who took time out of their hectic schedules to meet with us, showed real interest in the innovation that is happening around the globe. There is no doubt that this is an exciting time for the cell therapy industry; with over $5.3bn raised for the industry in 2016 alone and 802 worldwide clinical trials, the opportunity for growth, and the potential to lead the future of healthcare, is immense. But, that’s not to say it is without challenge; as I once heard someone aptly say, ‘we are flying a plane while building it’. My job for the week was to highlight the potential of the industry. I think the real question we need to ask ourselves is ‘can Australia really afford not be part of such an important industry?’. If Australia wants to be a global leader in this field, we require a national, long-term initiative in cell therapies and we are fortunate that the CRC Programme provides a platform to support this.