Lumina’s Innovative Set-up Helps Impressive Drug Research Reach Patients, Faster

NEWS - 13 Oct 2021

Groundbreaking research with global impact is happening on the Gold Coast, through a unique collaborative community of experts and innovators in health, education, and technology. Lumina is the Queensland Government’s 9.5 hectare development dedicated to growing the life sciences, health and technology-related businesses within the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct. Lumina is providing the space and opportunity to accelerate the commercialisation of research, like that of one of our experts, Associate Professor Lara Herrero.

A/Prof Herrero is a Research Leader at Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, who has been taking her research from lab bench to hospital bedside, and changing the lives of people experiencing the pain and symptoms of Ross River viral disease.

One of Australia’s most-common insects plays a lead role in spreading serious infectious disease

A/Prof Herrero studies mosquito-transmitted viruses with a focus on Ross River virus, which infects up to 5,000 Australians every year causing Ross River viral disease. People are infected with the Ross River virus when they are bitten by a mosquito that carries the virus. The infection has serious health consequences in humans and can cause joint inflammation and pain, rash, fatigue, and muscle aches.

While most people recover completely within 6 months, some people have symptoms for a year or more, including fatigue, muscle aches and pain, headaches, and fever. A/Prof Herrero understands how serious the consequences of Ross River viral disease can be, having been bitten and infected herself.

“Australia has Ross River virus everywhere, and trust me, it is not something you want to contract,” A/Prof Herrero said.

“In a COVID-19 world, it is easier for people to be flippant about Ross River viral disease. It’s just a bit of muscle pain, they might say.”

“But I can tell you, every day I get emails from people who are suffering and who are desperate to find some normality in their life, because it just annihilates their everyday function,” she said.

Looking at the body’s immune system for clues about the likely effectiveness of potential drug treatments

As a viral immunologist, A/Prof Herrero focusses her research on the body’s immune system and how it reacts to viruses. Treating Ross River viral disease has always been difficult, because when the virus infects a patient it causes inflammation, sometimes systemically throughout the body, even long after the virus has resolved.

Typical antiviral drug treatments will not help ease Ross River patients’ pain – because the body has already ‘taken care of the virus,’ so antivirals have nothing left to kill. The ongoing symptoms are caused by the body’s own immune system working in overdrive.

A/Prof Herrero and her team needed to find ‘disease modifying’ treatments, often called ‘immunotherapies’ that can change the body’s immune system and inflammatory response to combat the long-term effects of Ross River virus disease. These types of treatments are already commonly used in rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimers’ disease.

A typical new drug development process can take decades to progress from lab, through clinical trials, to hospitals and the patients who need it. However, A/Prof Herrero was able to move faster using a drug-repurposing approach, which meant testing a set of existing drugs already on the market, approved and available for other uses.

Clever drug repurposing uncovered an opportunity with an existing bladder inflammation treatment

A/Prof Herrero’s combined disease research and extensive knowledge of drugs on the market uncovered a drug that was already approved for the treatment of bladder inflammation.

“People wouldn’t think bladder inflammation has anything to do with arthritis from a mosquito transmitted disease, but when you analyse the mechanism of inflammation, you can see there are similarities” Dr Herrero said.

A/Prof Herrero’s team had success throughout the clinical trial phases, with the drug treatment alleviating symptoms of real Ross River viral disease patients who participated in the study.

“We have managed to get through Phase Two clinical trials successfully and we have also successfully used the TGA Special Access Scheme, to provide this new treatment and hope to Ross River viral disease patients who are desperate for relief of their painful symptoms.”

“The aim is to then roll out the treatment internationally and as an international patent that covers all similar mosquito borne viruses, in places like the United States or South America where the need is also great,” A/Prof Herrero said.

Lumina’s physical set up provides researchers facilities to conduct their research and access patient participants 

The study of viruses requires strict biological containment facilities. A/Prof Herrero’s research requires a specialised lab space called a ‘Physical Containment Level 3 (PC3)’ lab, which is specifically designed to ensure infectious microorganisms are controlled and safely contained, protecting the surrounding environment, workers inside the facility and the community from any risk of contamination.  Expansion of these types of laboratories and advanced facilities is being planned within Lumina as a centre for future growth of research and industry.

Another important factor for achieving research success is being surrounded by other experts of varying specialties who can help drive research forward at the different stages of the process. This helps get research out of the lab and to the patients who need it.

“When I started my career as a scientist, no one told me that to successfully take your science to a point of impact  you need to be a good communicator, a good accountant, have a general understanding of the law and patents, and be quite business savvy.”

“The benefit of being in the Precinct is that we have experts in all these fields that I can go to at any given point. For example, at the Institute for Glycomics, we have a business team led by General Manager Dr Chris Davis. Without him and his team, moving our research from discovery to ‘commercial translation’ and into market, would be next to impossible.”

Achieving great outcomes is simpler when those experts and other stakeholders are located close by, including hospitals, industry, private sector, and government organisations. A/Prof Herrero’s team have worked with the hospital clinical trials unit of the Gold Coast University Hospital – which is located just next door in the Precinct. Such a close connection allows far more direct translation of research work, between scientists and clinicians, and the patients who need treatment.

“Unlike a lot of industries, science is one that requires close physical proximity. Physical location is critical,” A/Prof Herrero said.

Opportunities for the ‘who’s who’ in health science, biotech and pharma are still available in the Precinct

A/Prof Herrero said that the quality of research coming out of this Precinct is nothing short of remarkable, on both a local and global scale. She is looking forward to seeing it grow in years to come, as the ‘who’s who’ in biotech, pharma, research and development, and other life sciences take up tenancy within the community.

“After an awesome discovery in the lab, who doesn’t want to go for a surf or a lovely beach walk, and enjoy all the outdoor activities that you can do year-round on the Gold Coast,” she said.

“I think it’s a really great place to be.”

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