Scott Morrison and Karen Andrews with Venetoclax researchers
17 October 2019
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The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor Andrew Roberts is one of four senior scientists to share the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

Associate Professor Peter Czabotar, Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Professor Roberts (pictured, with Prime Minister the Hon Scott Morrison MP and Minister for Industry, Science and technology the Hon Karen Andrews MP) were recognised for their roles in the discovery and development of the anti-cancer drug venetoclax – a decades-long project undertaken with collaborators at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. The medicine is used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), the most common leukaemia diagnosed in Australia.

Venetoclax is the first of a new class of medicines to become routinely available for clinical use and is currently being accessed by thousands of patients in Australia and around the world. It avoids many of the side effects usually seen during chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which is a significant benefit to patients and how they can tolerate cancer treatment. More than 150 clinical trials are currently underway to investigate venetoclax for use in CLL and other cancers.

The researchers received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation this evening at Parliament House, where they were congratulated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews.

A triumph of science and translation

The development of venetoclax began with a landmark discovery made at WEHI in the 1980s that a protein called BCL-2 helps cancer cells survive.

In partnership with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, and AbbVie, the team, based out of WEHI, discovered and developed venetoclax in a remarkably short time, taking less than seven years from its discovery to the first regulatory approval.

Professor Roberts, a haematologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter Mac, Cancer Research and Treatments theme leader at WEHI and a professor at the University of Melbourne, led the world-first clinical trials of venetoclax in Melbourne and said venetoclax was replacing chemotherapy for many patients in Australia and worldwide.

“This really is a triumph of basic science and translational innovation, enabling the generation and rapid regulatory approval of a product that is significantly beneficial for many people,” Professor Roberts said.

Dedication and powerful collaboration

The four researchers brought their leadership and individual expertise in biology, drug discovery, preclinical testing and clinical trials to the project, making a series of discoveries that were key to the development of the anti-cancer treatment.

WEHI molecular cell biologist Professor Huang said collaboration was key to the breakthrough cancer drug.

“When people come from different backgrounds and take a multi-dimensional view of the same human problem, it delivers a much richer perspective,” Professor Huang said.

Venetoclax was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2016 and the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia in 2017. In 2019 venetoclax was listed on the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are Australia’s most prestigious awards for outstanding achievements in scientific research and research-based innovation, and for excellence in science, mathematics or technology teaching.

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