Venetoclax - translation at its finest

A key discovery made 30 years ago at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) was the basis for a new anti-cancer drug, venetoclax, achieving the holy grail of market entry and a landmark commercial deal for the Institute.

In one of the biggest research commercialisation deals in Australian lifesciences history, delivering WEHI a cash payment of $312 million upfront and potential milestone payments of up to $94 million, CPPIB Credit Europe, a wholly owned subsidiary of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, has acquired the rights to a proportion of WEHI’s future venetoclax royalties. The Institute will also retain partial royalties in the drug.

"Venetoclax demonstrates what success can look like for a collaborative, entrepreneurial and innovative medical research institute and why investment in basic research is so important," said Professor Doug Hilton AO, Institute Director and Club Melbourne Ambassador. 

Venetoclax is the result of research collaboration with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, and AbbVie and is based on ground-breaking scientific discoveries made at the Institute over three decades.

Professor Hilton is justifiably proud of the Institute’s tenacity and long-term commitment to the project, requiring both scientific and commercial acumen in equal measure. Many in the sector see this announcement as a landmark achievement, raising the bar for the sector. "This need not be a one-time event," commented Professor Hilton. "Venetoclax is proof that Australian institutions can be key players in globally significant translation."

Professor Hilton acknowledged that more than 400 researchers, clinical, legal and commercial experts had worked on the project and recognised the Australian Synchrotron as being essential to the project. A proportion of the income will be distributed to those people who contributed to the development and translation of venetoclax. "It’s important that we acknowledge their contributions and foster an entrepreneurial spirit of discovery at the Institute so future discoveries can be made," said Professor Hilton.

"The revenue from this deal will contribute to our strategy of investing in the talent and technology to accelerate the discovery and translation of new medicines," reported Professor Hilton. A portion of the income will be invested in the Institute’s endowment, contributing towards supporting scientists to undertake basic research independent of the vagaries of peer-reviewed funding, and is too early to receive pharma or biotech funding. The revenue will also support important infrastructure initiatives such as the latest microscopy technology in a field known as dynamic imaging, as well as the construction of an on-site early childhood education and care centre, a first for an independent medical research institute in Australia.

The drug, developed by US pharmaceutical and biotech companies Genentech and AbbVie, is approved by Australian, US, EU and Canadian therapeutic regulatory bodies for treating people with a specific type of blood cancer called chronic lymphocytic leukaemia with 17p deletion.

Considered a "last-chance option" for patients with this form of blood cancer, the drug targets a protein called BCL-2 that promotes cancer cell survival.

There are hopes that the drug could have applications in other cancer types and at different disease stages, with over 40 clinical trials currently taking place around the world.

Announced on 24 July by Federal and Victorian Health Ministers the Hon. Greg Hunt MP and the Hon. Jill Hennessy MP at WEHI, the deal represents one of the great commercial success stories of the lifesciences sector in Australia in the past decade and reconfirms the health, social and economic value of investing in research. "This landmark deal is proof that our local scientists are at the forefront of life-changing medical research and that investments into Victorian research institutes have a substantial global impact", The Hon. Jill Hennessy said.