On tour with the PM to Canada and USA

On tour with the PM to Canada and USA

30th June, 2014

June2014_BC_PM_ARobbIt was hard to miss coverage of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent tours through France and North America. Understandably, the delegation of business leaders accompanying the PM on the Canadian and American legs didn’t get the same level of media exposure.

While many of the 20 or so CEOs were from the energy sector, surprisingly, to me at least, three of us were from health and medical research organisations. Given the announcement on budget night of the establishment of the $20billion Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

It was clear throughout the week-long tour to innovation capitals such as Houston, New York and Toronto that the PM and Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb consider health and medical research to be one of Australia’s areas of distinct competitive advantage on the international stage.

This tour was an opportunity for the PM and Minister Robb to promote Australia’s success in medical research and to build ties with similar hubs of success in the US and Canada. Many have heard of the outstanding Australian success stories of the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine and the Cochlear hearing implant, but few are aware that there are literally hundreds more Australian discoveries with similar potential to not only deliver incredible health benefits to Australia and the global community, but to generate billions in export revenue to our economy.

The translation of Australian discoveries into health and economic benefits requires strong links with other countries with a competitive strength. Australian-owned Mesoblast, for example, has developed stem-cell therapies for health and nervous system conditions. It has worked with American biopharmaceutical company Cephalon in a deal worth up to $US1.7billion. This not only brings revenue to Australia, but creates high value jobs while improving the health of Australians.

But while we have these achievements to highlight internationally, the delegation was also keen to learn lessons from others. One such example is Canada’s MaRS Discovery District, located in the heart of Canada’s largest research cluster in downtown Toronto. One of world’s biggest innovation hubs, MaRS works with an extensive network of private and public sector partners to help entrepreneurs launch and grow start-up ventures with broad economic and societal impact, especially in the health sector.

We also visited the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, where we witnessed the amazing potential that aggregating and interlinking clinical care and research, and mixing this with a culture of entrepreneurship can have on innovative, effective healthcare. MD Anderson is part of the Texas Medical Centre, which is home to 30,000 health care professionals and scientists working in 21 hospitals and 33 other co-located medical institutions. It conducts the largest number of cancer clinical trials in the USA while also maintaining an emphasis on education and prevention.

So not only did this trip create important ties in North America – increasingly important in tackling the big global health issues and in bringing important private investment to Australia – it provided us with examples of world’s best practice in integrating and embedding research in health care.

There could be no better time to learn these lessons with the injection of funding that the MRFF would provide over the next decade, assuming it is passed by the Senate. Increasing funding over time, the MRFF would allow Australia to build on our success in medical research discoveries to better translate these innovations into improved healthcare. Such a ‘translational’ focus for the MRFF would work in concert with the existing funding system that emphasises (by no means exclusively) discovery research, to make sure these discoveries make it out of the lab and to the bedside. Getting this right will ensure we have a sustainable health system for future generations.

Let’s hope that the PM’s experiences as he travelled through North America lead to a wise implementation plan for the MRFF. It certainly can’t have hurt.