Oral Presentation Australian Society for Medical Research Annual Scientific Meeting 2016

Pushing the boundaries of biology and technology: A non-linear model is rewarding but can create tensions (#27)

Alan Trounson 1
  1. Hudson Institute for Medical Research, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Research into science and medicine is highly regulated by academic and research institutions and granting agencies that have a strong views about limiting risk and ensuring experiments are built on a strong foundation of evidence, primarily derived from the investigator’s laboratory. This linear research is strongly favored by most granting agencies. Indeed I have heard it recommended that grants should be composed of already near completed data to increase the success of grant awards. This approach discourages creativity and innovative studies on new subjects that are not in the mainstream of current investigation. I think there is a place for non-linear research or disruptive research that may open new fields for study but also recognize that there are tensions that may quickly arise for scientists that explore such new areas.
My own research has been primarily disruptive and rewarding in a model where collaborations with individuals from different fields has worked well in opening new opportunities in animal biotechnology and human medicine. Generally the new studies were not supported by conventional granting agencies because there was little preliminary data or evidence that it would succeed. There were also ethical issues raised by some of the work because the subject had strong connections to religious beliefs that were not supportive. At other times the collaboration with industry was seen as a negative. These issues created tension between the desire to continue the research and institutional or community concerns. Generally the science won out because it generally provided highly desirable outcomes.
The nature of my research moved from large animal reproductive technology – developing embryo transfer, freezing and transport for the animal industries (cattle, sheep, horses, pigs) to human IVF where there was little knowledge and a belief that IVF could not be developed. The tensions were very strong over the ethics of embryo research, involvement of industry and the pace of discovery. Over 7 million babies have now been born using the technologies we developed at Monash. Cloning of animals after “Dolly the sheep” again created tensions but also a new industry. Human embryonic stem cells were developed again with considerable criticism and a lack grant funding. This field moved quickly and was strongly funded as Australia’s Biotechnology Centre of Excellence by the ARC ($110million). However, this was a disappointment when governance issues and structure led to key scientists leaving. In a very different structure the state bond funded California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) (US$3billion) demonstrated how to drive stem cell discovery to clinical trial and patient benefit. The cell therapy that has arisen around chimeric antigen receptor technology (CAR-T) shows incredible potential as an effective cancer therapy and when combined with stem cells may revolutionize cancer treatment. This can only really be achieved as a private-public partnership of science and industry.