A thousand flowers bloom: The 21st century

The 21st century has seen seismic changes in technology and in pharmaceutical sciences. Advancements in research and technology have made new things possible, in terms of pharmacy research, drug discovery and practice. It’s an exciting time.

The college, which became Monash University’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2008, seized on these opportunities under the leadership of Deans Colin Chapman and Bill Charman. The entrepreneurial spirit that characterised the Victorian College of Pharmacy from the beginning is stronger than ever, though the commercial activities of the faculty now operate on a scale that might have seen Joseph Bosisto and John Kruse reaching for the ammonium carbonate “smelling salts”.

In the last 20 years, the faculty has woven together many of its pre-existing strengths and capabilities into something far more coordinated and strategic. There’s been a focus on building capacity to conduct research at all stages of the drug-discovery pipeline, and on articulating the faculty’s research strengths, through the creation of three Therapeutic Program Areas: Neuroscience and Mental Health, Global Health and Cardiovascular and Metabolic Health. The faculty now acts as a key presence in the thriving Victorian pharmacy industry ecosystem, driving and supporting research, manufacturing and entrepreneurial activities.

Faculty research teams have secured lucrative deals with multinational pharmaceutical companies, graduates are launching exciting start-ups and faculty members have continued to launch new spin-off companies, building on the success of Biota and Acrux.

Pharmacy international

The faculty has built on the international networks established in earlier eras to broaden its global influence and perspective, too.

The global outlook is reflected in the student body, with increasing numbers of international students studying pharmacy at Monash, enriching and expanding the networks of graduates and faculty. It’s also reflected in the faculty’s industry and research partnerships, which stretch to many corners of the planet.

Meanwhile, global health has become a key therapeutic priority. Researchers at Parkville are tackling malaria and COVID-19 among other wicked problems of global health.

MIPS

In the same year that the college became a faculty within Monash University, 2008, it also established the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS).

From its inception, the vision of founding Director Bill Charman was for the institute  to be more than the research arm of a university faculty. It represented a new kind of research model; the MIPS structure was designed to facilitate industry collaboration, to foster multidisciplinary research teams and to incubate new commercial opportunities. It’s done exactly that.

Co-located collaborators

Under the leadership of Professor Charman and later his successor Professor Chris Porter, the newly established MIPS quickly integrated and established some star research teams. These teams collaborated on projects and continue to do incredible work into the 2020s. Today, MIPS research teams are working across all phases of the drug-development life cycle, from target to molecule to optimised preclinical drug candidates to clinical trials, manufacturing support and safe prescription practices. Over the years, MIPS teams have nurtured commercial partnerships with organisations including Servier, GSK, Starpharma, Takeda, Johnson & Johnson and more.

The Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation (CDCO), which started up in 2003, has filled a crucial gap in drug development. Led today by Professor Susan Charman, the CDCO runs as a quasi-commercial service for biotech companies, startups and non-profits seeking to identify and optimise drug candidates. The team studies the absorption, distribution, metabolism and extraction properties of new drug candidates – identifying limitations in drug design early in the development process.

The Drug Discovery Biology theme – originally led by Professors Patrick Sexton, Arthur Christopoulos and Roger Summers – is now fronted by Professor Rebecca Ritchie, late of The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. It was integrated from the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Clayton, into MIPS, in 2009. From the beginning, the theme’s work focused on the early phase of drug development, including target identification, target validation, hit discovery, mechanism of action, and proof of concept. Under Professor Ritchie’s leadership, it is now building strength in translational pharmacology.

Led for twenty years by Professor Peter Scammells, the Medicinal Chemistry Theme pre-existed MIPS. It has proven fertile ground for collaboration with other  research institutions, with the establishment of major platforms in the shape of the  Australian Translational Medicinal Chemistry Facility and the Monash Fragment Platform. Professor Scammells is stepping down from the leadership, but will remain as the Faculty's Associate Dean Research, and Associate Professor Ben Capuano will serve as interim leader while an international search is conducted for a replacement.

With its focus on developing next-generation drug-delivery systems to enhance drug exposure and action, the Drug Delivery Disposition and Dynamics Theme is a natural collaborator for industry partners (see the stories about Puretech and Starpharma elsewhere in this piece, for example, alongside the work led by Professor Roger Nation and Professor Jian Li to develop a novel antibiotic to combat superbugs, in collaboration with US firm QPex Biopharma).

Longtime theme leader Colin Pouton has recently stepped down, in part to focus on helping develop domestic mRNA manufacturing, with Professor Michelle McIntosh serving as interim leader.

Following in the footsteps of the original vision of the IDT, the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre is another crucial team within MIPS. MMIC supports pharmaceutical manufacturers and allied industries in optimising manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Medicine Use and Safety (CMUS) researches and develops new models of healthcare practice, especially those involving pharmacists, with the aim of improving safety and efficacy in medicine use.

Susan Charman

Professor Susan Charman studied in the US and worked in the pharmaceutical industry before moving to Monash to assume an academic role at the faculty.

She has devoted much of her career to seeking new drug candidates to treat neglected and tropical infectious diseases, especially malaria. For decades she’s been a key player in drug discovery for the Medicines for Malaria venture. Charman is a prolific and widely cited scientist, who has published over 170 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts and is a named inventor on 10 patents.

Today Charman is the Director of the Centre for Drug Candidate Optimisation, leading a team of 25  research scientists and postdoctoral fellows who undertake physicochemical, metabolism and pharmacokinetic investigations to  inform drug candidate design and progression.

Excellence in enterprise

The faculty’s research covers a range of diseases, but most research is currently concentrated on three major therapeutic areas: neuroscience and mental health, cardiovascular and metabolic health and global health. Following the success of Acrux, drug delivery research within the faculty has led to the spin-out of some exciting new commercial entities in recent years.

Biotech boom

MIPS partnered with the University of Melbourne in 2016 to form Biocurate. Biocurate aims to accelerate the translation of basic medical research into human therapeutics. It’s an independent entity charged with removing early-stage obstacles to providing researchers with pathways to commericalise their findings.

Faculty researchers have made major advancements and seized commercial opportunities in drug development, too. In 2017, MIPS announced the licensing of a lymphatic drug targeting technology platform to clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company PureTech Health.

And in 2018, Cincera Therapeutics launched with a $7 million venture capital commitment from the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund. The company was another MIPS spin-off, founded by Associate Professor Bernard Flynn from MIPS and Professor Stuart Pitson from the Centre for Cancer Biology. The company primarily develops therapies for metabolic syndromes and type-2 diabetes-related diseases.

Global Health

MIPS people are making an impact across the globe developing creative strategies, treatments and technologies with the power to save many lives.

Craig Rayner, a former MIPS academic and college alumnus, has dedicated much of his career to accelerating drug development and drug access on a global scale. He created his own company, d3 Medicine, acquired by Certara in 2016, to address the systematic research and development failures that frustrate drug development and access, especially in the developing world.

For many years, the CDCO has had a longstanding collaboration with the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV). Several of these projects have progressed into trials. One such project is a "next generation" ozonide drug candidate, aimed at curing malaria with a single oral dose.

A MIPS team led by Professor Michelle McIntosh has developed an ingenious solution to a deadly problem for mothers in developing countries: inhalable oxytocin to help prevent postpartum haemorrhage (PPH). In many parts of the world, PPH is the single-largest cause of death for women after childbirth. Unlike injected oxytocin, the inhalable dry-powder form of oxytocin doesn’t need to be refrigerated and doesn’t need to be administered by a trained medical professional. MIPS worked closely on this project with a range of industry partners including GlaxoSmithKline in London.

And in 2020, MIPS professor Colin Pouton’s team used mRNA science to produce three new vaccine candidates for COVID-19. They were the first team in Australia to do so.

Making it local

Victoria’s pharmaceuticals sector soared in the second half of the 2010s, contributing more than $2.2 billion in exports in 2018 compared to just $873 million in 2014. According to Victoria’s Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions Melbourne-based companies currently make up over 40 per cent of all ASX-listed medtech and pharmaceutical firms in Australia, and employ around 31,000 people.

Local manufacturing innovation remains a crucial element of the Australian pharmacy ecosystem, even as the industry’s focus has turned more towards research and intellectual property in recent years. MIPS has carved out a niche within this ecosystem, making strides – and big plans – in vaccine-manufacturing technologies. It’s creating jobs and bolstering Australia’s medicine security in the process.

Among the biggest success stories is the collaboration between Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre and GlaxoSmithKline Australia to use blow-fill-seal (BFS) technology to manufacture vaccines. The MMIC team have proven agile in their model. They offer formulation development services and expertise in product development beyond just human medicines. Their activities have extended into veterinary products, medical devices, cosmetics and nutraceutical products.

Michelle McIntosh

Professor Michelle McIntosh is a pharmaceutical scientist with an international reputation in the fields of pulmonary (mouth-inhaled) drug delivery and global health.

McIntosh completed her undergraduate and PhD studies at Monash University before moving in 1999 to the University of Kansas, Center for Drug Delivery Research. Since 2006, she’s continued her research at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

McIntosh’s award-winning research has focused on improving access to life- saving medications for birthing mothers in the developing world. She’s developing a novel aerosol delivery system for oxytocin. In 2017 McIntosh was co-awarded the John Dixon Hughes Medal for Medical Research Innovation.

Today she’s the director of the HMSTrust Laboratory, an open access analytical laboratory at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the director of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC). Her wide research interests embrace medicinal cannabis in the treatment of paediatric epilepsy and targeted antibiotic treatment for respiratory infections.

A new chapter

After a global search for a new dean in 2019, the faculty found the right person in one of its own labs in Parkville. Professor Arthur Christopoulos, a graduate of the Victorian College of Pharmacy, and a star researcher in the Drug Discovery Biology theme, is building on the huge strides made during Professor Bill Charman’s tenure as dean.

Multidisciplinary collaboration and manufacturing capacity are two key components of Christopoulos’s vision. MIPS researchers are playing a key role in the frontiers of mental illness treatment with the launch of the ambitious new Neuromedicines Discovery Centre.

The faculty has launched a new degree, the Master of Pharmaceutical Science, designed in consultation with industry, to address emerging skills gaps and in anticipation of the exciting new products and possibilities in the biomedical field.

And earlier this year, as part of a partnership with IDT Australia, MIPS received Australia’s first mRNA vaccine manufacturing machine. The machine will enable Pouton’s team to progress their COVID-19 vaccine candidates to clinical trial and will ultimately enable Victoria to produce COVID vaccines. These facilities will also enable world-leading MIPS drug-developers to respond quickly to other novel diseases and viruses in the future.

Splendr

Monash pharmaceutical science graduates have used their knowledge and expertise to launch a new business in the world of cosmetics. Libby Le and Este Tschung both studied Pharmaceutical Sciences at Monash but first met while working at global skincare company Aesop after graduating. They became friends and entrepreneurs, cofounding Splendr, an online beauty store that makes high-demand and cult global beauty products available to Australian consumers.

Then and now

A lot has changed since the early pharmacists of Victoria grappled with logistics, supply and the other problems of distance; since Felton and Grimwade started their glass factory after too many broken bottles came off the ship, or since George Nicholas made his own aspirin, after Germany cut supply during the First World War. But ingenuity, energy and a drive for self-sufficiency characterised the industry in Victoria then as now – from Bosisto’s eucalyptus oil to mRNA technology.