Hands across the water

07 Nov 2011

Author: Julietta Jameson

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An Australian is leading the world in biotech research in an effort to create mass vaccinations for some of the most prevalent diseases.
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When Professor Barry Marshall graduated, he had no idea what sort of career lay ahead for him. “When I came out of medical school, we all pretty much thought all the good stuff was discovered,” he says.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the endlessly curious Western Australian Nobel Laureate to recognise the infinite possibility that lay ahead. “I realised there’s so much we don’t understand, especially with the immune system. It’s like a black box. You put something in one side of it and something different comes out some other part of it and you have no idea what happened in the middle.

“The human genome: it’s like you’ve got a car completely disassembled and you’ve got all these parts. The things we know about the immune system: that too is a box of parts. There are a lot of opportunities there.”

It’s the recognition of opportunity that has put Marshall in a unique position in Australian, indeed world biotech research. An entrepreneurial spirit combined with his remarkable scientific audacity sees him as head of Ondek, a Perth-based company researching the extraordinary capabilities of the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori.

Today, Marshall’s team is on the verge of human trials using Helicobacter pylori to create mass vaccinations against some of the world’s most widespread and devastating diseases. But he could not have got to where he is today without key collaborations. The first was with Robin Warren, a pathologist with an interest in gastric ulcers. The two worked together at the Royal Perth Hospital and showed that bacteria, not stress or lifestyle, caused the majority of gastric ulcers. This led to the realisation that ulcers could be treated with antibiotics. Their work rewrote medical texts and jointly won them the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physiology.

From the point of originating their joint research to the winning of the Nobel Prize, Marshall credits a long list of fellow researchers and practitioners with supporting and spurring him along.

But one commercial collaboration became pivotal. Mike Manhart, a microbiologist working in the US for Procter & Gamble (P&G), realised the economic potential of Marshall’s work for P&G. Marshall had discovered that Pepto-Bismol, an over-the-counter drug for the treatment of minor stomach ailments owned by P&G, kills Helicobacter. As a result, the company later patented much of Marshall’s work. “A lot of people who are in research postpone a lot of family activity so they can do their PhDs and travel overseas. And so anyone who has a family and children is pretty much left out of that lifestyle,“ says Marshall who had four children by the time P&G came calling. “So because I ended up with an association with Procter & Gamble, I had someone paying my bills and I could go overseas to study further and take the family with me. A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to do it.” 

Now Marshall is working to provide similar beneficial collaborations around the world. “There are lots of opportunities. My goal in the next 20 years is to have a significant biotech operation under my belt that funds these kinds of projects. That is why entrepreneurs like myself do it. You want to be free to follow your heart, if you like, into any research area you are attracted to; to put significant amounts of resources in and to not have to be writing applications for funding.”

For now, however, through his biotech company Ondek, Marshall is involved in creating vaccines based on the Helicobacter bacteria’s unique abilities. Collaborations are taking place around the globe, including in Pakistan, where some interesting discoveries have been made about the ability of Helicobacters to block active tuberculosis. Marshall is currently working on a flu vaccine that would see a harmless version of the virus combine with Helicobacter to produce an oral product – a freeze-dried capsule or a yoghurt-type substance – for use as a vaccine. “The beauty of it is we can make millions of doses in a short space of time. We are starting human trials this year.”

The success of the trials could have enormous implications for the management of viruses such as AIDS and malaria.