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Increased cancer research funding is vital to Victoria’s scientific reputation

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23 April 2012

Professor Neil Watkins
Professor Neil Watkins

By Professor Neil Watkins

If Victoria does not increase our cancer research support, we stand to lose our competitive edge in the industry within the next five years.

Within the next few months the Victorian Government is set to announce the next round of Victorian Cancer Agency (VCA) Funding. The VCA is a funding agency developed by the Victorian Government to facilitate cancer research in Victoria, and to foster the rapid translation of research findings into clinical practice. Each year it provides grants to researchers to support this strategy.

If the VCA grants are not renewed, and in fact funded to a higher level, we will lose our competitive advantage because there simply won’t be enough money to sustain the level of excellence we’ve achieved here in Victoria over the past 20 years.

There is an expectation that Victoria will remain the number one centre for cancer research in Australia, but this is largely historical. We now face a challenge: New South Wales and Queensland are both outspending us in cancer research five to six times over. As a result, our top scientists and researchers are being enticed to move their work to laboratories interstate.

Victorian cancer researchers successfully obtain nationally competitive grant support that results in published work in prestigious journals, but this will not continue if Victoria is out-bid by philanthropists and competing state governments  who rightly see this is an intellectual investment in their future.

Of course, VCA funding is not the only cancer research funding available; there are also major grants provided by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). However, NHMRC funding barely covers the cost of the research, and we cannot rely on the Federal Government to increase support for medical research in the current economic environment. Even more challenging is the fact that the NHMRC does not fund the huge infrastructure costs associated with medical research. These costs include supporting buildings and equipment, and the added costs for employing professional staff such as superannuation and insurance.

What the VCA funds allow us to do is initiate our own independent trials with our own therapeutic development rather than relying on a drug company to finance them. They allow us to support our own researchers to conduct independent research and they bridge the gap between discovery and the large-scale clinical trials that are funded by pharmaceutical companies.

VCA funding also promotes collaboration, encouraging groups from all over of Victoria to work together on shared interests. This prevents duplication and waste; it helps consolidate resources in a way that ultimately saves money. It also helps support the crucial steps in taking locally developed technologies and treatments to the clinic. This recognised as a key area that is not supported by the NHMRC.In this way, a VCA grant is a stepping stone to much larger projects, projects which will come to Victoria rather than other states.

Monash Institute of Medical Research has two leading innovative therapeutic treatments receiving vital funding which would never have been developed without VCA support. As a result of our research, Victorians will soon see a world-first clinical trial in osteosarcoma, one of the most common forms of bone cancer, at the Peter Mac our partner in this collaboration. This work has been possible because of a VCA grant of $3.8 million over four years.

Late last year, as a result of a $3.5 million VCA grant over three years, our research into lung cancer was published in Nature Medicine. This prestigious international journal published our discovery of a mechanism that causes an aggressive type of lung cancer to re-grow following chemotherapy, a finding which offers hope for new therapies.

Being at the forefront of science, technology and treatment brings with it investment, educational benefits, workforce development, private investment and international reputation to the state. All of these are at risk if we don’t maintain our competitive edge in Victoria.

Cancer research is high-tech and expensive - it requires private sector money to succeed. The only way Victorian researchers will attract the attention of the private sector is we stay number one in Australia. This will not happen without this basic but very important funding.

Neil Watkins is Professor of Cancer Biology at the Monash Institute of Medical Research. Previously, he ran a research laboratory at the Kimmel Cancer Centre at  John Hopkins University in Baltimore.