The importance of biomedical breakthroughs is never more at the forefront of our minds than when a loved one or you are faced with serious illness or when the threat of a deadly virus hits our shores.
Professor Mark von Itzstein, Director of the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University and his team, have played an essential role in the Gold Coast fast becoming a global centre for medical research, launching the city into the future with its medical advances.
“I would like to think we have played a founding, critical and essential role in the development of the Gold Coast from a health, biomedical research and innovation point of view,” says Professor von Itzstein of the institute he established in 2000 to be world leaders in discovery and development of next-generation drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics for diseases such as childhood leukemia, melanoma, meningococcal disease, malaria and zika virus.
“When I arrived tourism was the cornerstone industry but health and biomedical research is now leveling the playing field. We are making major contributions to the Gold Coast and southeast Queensland per se in a new industry. We feel we have contributed to a broader economic base.”
Glycomics is the study of the carbohydrate or sugar language within our body, referred to as the ‘glycome’. Every cell in our body is decorated with these sugars, which are essential to our health and wellbeing.
These simple sugar molecules connect together to create powerful structures called ‘glycans’. Cancers and infectious diseases can take advantage of glycans, resulting in major health problems and potentially death.
Glycomics is a relatively new field of study compared with genomics (study of genes) and proteomics (study of proteins). The institute’s research expertise makes it the only one of its kind in Australia and one of a handful in the world.
“We are unique in what we do. Our research focuses on the role that sugars play in disease and, using that knowledge, invent new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics to treat, prevent or diagnose cancer and infectious diseases,” says Professor von Itzstein, who has been named Gold Coast Citizen of the Year for 2020. “The world has only started to understand this wonderful language of sugars; carbohydrates in our body and I don’t mean in the nutrition context.”
“It’s an important element of understanding the good and the bad but more importantly, understanding in day to day life, at every stage of life from egg fertilisation through to death, what happens to our sugar language, our carbohydrate language at a cellular level,” he adds. “Cracking that code and understanding that language has taken very smart people right across the world and major advances in technology that have allowed us to start to interrogate the language.”
Some of the world’s top scientists are lining up to relocate to the institute, located in the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct in Southport, the 200-hectare health and innovation hub alongside Griffith University, Gold Coast University Hospital and Gold Coast Private Hospital.
Supported by $5 billion in infrastructure, the precinct is set to be home to 2,500 residents – a community in which to live, work, study, and play.
“Griffith University invested heavily in the establishment of not just our institute but the campus on the whole. As soon as you start putting in outstanding, state of the art, physical infrastructure, coupled with a beautiful environment, you can understand why anybody in the world would want to move here,” enthuses Professor von Itzstein. “You’re bringing these two elements together, an outstanding workplace where people can be creative, innovative and drive amazing new research endeavours, whatever the field may be and they can raise a family or enjoy an environment that is unsurpassed, unparalleled in the world.”
“The Gold Coast has the country’s leading clinical trial capacity. That investment has set us apart with international firms and researchers wanting to do human clinical trials here. We have the systems in place and they want to work with these fantastic resources,” adds Professor von Itzstein. “Global collaboration is essential to achieving our vision to bring forward novel drugs and vaccines to the community.”
In December 2019, the institute announced it has partnered with Hong Kong listed China Grand Pharma’s Australian company Grand Medical Ltd to develop a new drug for Human Parainfluenza Virus (hPIV), which commonly causes upper and lower respiratory illnesses in infants, young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems, including transplant patients.
“This multimillion-dollar agreement is the largest preclinical commercialisation deal in Australia for an anti-viral drug discovery,” says Professor von Itzstein, who led a team that discovered the anti-flu drug Relenza in 1993. “We’ve got significant investment in a co-development programme. We haven’t said ‘Here you go, you can have a licence to our technology, run away and do whatever you want.’ We wanted to make sure we’re arm in arm with this pharma company where they’re making major investment into research, the institute, to undertake the development of this anti-parainfluenza drug.”
The institute has seen many breakthroughs in the last 20 years, including those that are now in human clinical trials such as malaria vaccine; group A strep vaccine and an anti-arthritis drug.
“We’ve seen impressive results from Phase 2a clinical trials of a new drug candidate to treat viral arthritis caused by mosquito-borne alphavirus infections, including the debilitating Ross River virus (RRV) and chikungunya virus (CHIKV),” says Professor von Itzstein. “That is so close now to getting onto market. I’m optimistic that will happen.”
“Whole parasite Malaria Vaccine PlasProtecT® has entered Stage 1b human clinical trials in conjunction with Griffith University’s CTU and the Gold Coast University Hospital,” adds Professor von Itzstein. “First human trials began in 2013, indicating the multi-strain vaccine was safe and induced an immune response.”
So what’s Professor von Itzstein’s vision for the next decade?
“Within 10 years I expect to see, out of our institute, a number of drugs and vaccines to market. That’s a big statement to make – but that’s the way we look at it.”
Could that vision include a cure for cancer?
“Cancer seems like a simple word. There are many forms of cancer. The world is seeing dramatic change in our capacity to treat cancers, broadly speaking,” says Professor von Itzstein. “I’m very optimistic that cancer will be a word that will go from our vocabulary. I genuinely believe we will see major breakthroughs, in fact over the next five years.”
“There already have been major breakthroughs but I’m optimistic we will see more that will eventually eliminate the concern about cancers. That would be such a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
* This feature has been produced in collaboration with City of Gold Coast