The groundwork for globalisation: The 1980s to 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s were a period of rapid change and reform across many aspects of Australian society. The economy was globalising, manufacturing was in decline and there were major reforms in tertiary education.

These changes had profound and fateful impacts on the college. The question of amalgamation with a university – which had been a matter of intermittent stops and starts since the earliest days of the college – became a matter of increasing urgency in the late 1980s.

By 1991, the amalgamation of Monash University and the college had come into effect. It had not been won easily. Governments at both state and federal level had placed pressure on the college to join, instead, with the proximate University of Melbourne. But the college had not been able to strike a deal with the University of Melbourne that enabled it to retain its identity, its autonomy and its property. The college entered into negotiations with Monash University and was able to secure a more favourable outcome. Still, the federal government opposed the merger and threatened to penalise the college financially.

Victorian pharmacists, college alumni and college representatives sprang into action. A telephone and letters campaign, arguing vigorously for the Monash merger ultimately proved effective and the government backed down. Many college alumni saw that a lot was at stake. The college – their college – deserved an equal partnership worthy of its history and achievements. Meanwhile, the twin priorities of the Manning era – industry engagement and original research – began to bear fruit right on time, with groundbreaking research and product development happening on campus. College researchers developed new drugs to fight the deadly scourge, and the moving target, of influenza. And they developed revolutionary new methods of drug delivery.

Practice, practice, practice

Pharmaceutical practice and pharmacy education saw a cultural shift during this period, too. There was a growing understanding of the important role of the pharmacist in public health information and patient consultancy. Practical pharmacy became more patient-focused than product-focused.

This was reflected in the college curriculum. The college was the first in Australia to introduce the study of human behaviour into its pharmacy course. In 1982, a school of pharmacy practice was added to the three existing college schools (of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Pharmaceutics and Pharmacology), named the Sigma School of Pharmacy Practice in recognition of a significant gift from that company. Staff in the Sigma School undertook research in practical pharmacy during the 1980s in areas including medicine storage and asthma management and investigating outreach programs for the elderly.

Meanwhile, college alumni made strides and a lasting impact on practice-focused products and research.

Monash Parkville

Biota

The college worked hard during the 1980s and 1990s to build on the research focus and entrepreneurial spirit established during the Manning era. There were fruitful collaborations with May and Baker on the design of drugs acting on the central nervous system and with Pharmol Pty Ltd on research relating to the shikimate pathway.

Among the best known industry/research collaborations of this period was the college’s work with Biota. In 1985, Biota Holdings Ltd, a new high-tech venture capital company established a relationship with the college and agreed to provide two years of funding in drug design research. The focus of the research was influenza. Biota also engaged researchers from the Australian National University and the CSIRO. The research team at the college – first headed by Peter Andrews and later Mark von Itzstein in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry – designed, synthesised and biologically evaluated a number of candidate lead compounds that led to the development of a drug, now known as Relenza, that "locks" onto a vulnerable part of the influenza virus and prevents it spreading in infected patients.

Mark was jointly awarded the prestigious Australia Prize for Pharmaceutical Science in 1996 and even graced the cover of TIME magazine. The discovery is considered a key moment in glyco therapeutic drug development. Today Mark continues to build on this research. He is the director of Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, which is focused on carbohydrate-based research in areas of clinically significant diseases.

Barry Reed and Louis Roller
Barry Reed and Louis Roller in Cossar Hall

Acrux

The college was also the scene of some very exciting advances in drug delivery research and patient-preferred healthcare products during the 1990s.

Barrie Finnin and Barry Reed had discovered that certain sunscreen components facilitate the passage of drugs through the skin. PhD student Tim Morgan undertook further research and clinical trials that built on these discoveries.

Ultimately the combined efforts of the three led to the development of a revolutionary “spray-on” technology as an alternative to oral medications or skin patches. The technology has many advantages, especially for people who might struggle to take oral medications including young children, disabled people and older people.

The spray-on device developed by Acrux has a wide range of applications beyond assisting people to take prescribed drugs. These applications relate to female hormone replacement therapy, male testosterone replacement therapy, pain control, erectile dysfunction, urinary incontinence and anxiety states.

In 1998, Acrux Limited was formed to continue research into commercial transdermal technologies. Acrux Ltd has gone on to secure major international licensing agreements and has since listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. The company continues to develop topical pharmaceuticals for a range of applications including veterinary and cosmeceutical products.

Phyllis Lau

Phyllis Lau graduated from the college in 1985 and has pursued an exciting interdisciplinary research career focused on public health and primary care. Lau undertook a PhD in Pharmacy Practice on adverse side effects and drug reactions in oncology patients.

Today she is the director of the Cultural Respect Encompassing Simulation Training (CREST) program based at University of Melbourne, which is a ground-breaking program providing training in cultural sensitivity in communication for students and practitioners in medical and allied health care disciplines. CREST recognises that culturally sensitive health care is critical to reducing inequities and access issues for care of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) patients. The program gives students the chance to broaden their understanding of people from different cultures, through real-life observation, interviews, simulated encounters with patients and interacting with people from a broad range of backgrounds. Lau has been a leading and energetic voice on primary health care policy reform for disadvantaged population groups.