The Australian Federal Government’s budget yesterday contained several promising boosters for medical research which have the potential to benefit research into MS. However, the Budget news with the most significant immediate impact for the MS community was the final sign off by the Government on the PBS-listing of the new relapsing MS medication Ocrevus (ocrelizumab).
PBS-listing for new relapsing MS medication
Ocrelizumab for relapsing MS was recommended for PBS reimbursement by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) back in July 2017. However, before medications can be listed on the PBS the Government needs to approve the Committee’s recommendations. After a significant delay, this final approval has been announced in the 2018 Federal Budget. This now means affordable access to ocrelizumab for all people with relapsing MS who need it.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of Australia had also approved ocrelizumab for use in primary progressive MS (PPMS). However, at its first evaluation by the PBAC in November 2017 it was not recommended for subsidy for the treatment of progressive MS. We are still waiting to hear more about when it may be re-submitted to the committee for reconsideration.
Boost for genomics research
Also announced in the budget was the continued investment in the Medical Research Future Fund which will keep it on track to reach its target amount of $20 billion by 2020-21. Included in the latest announcement was how some of those funds will be spent which included funding for genomics research.
Australia has been a key international player in exciting genomic research into MS over the last decade. The MS Research Australia-supported Australian New Zealand MS Genetics Consortium (ANZgene) were first to discover two of the crucial MS risk genes and subsequently contributed to the International MS Genetics Consortium which has now revealed over 200 genetic variations that contribute to a person’s risk of developing MS.
Genomic research has unlocked some of the mysteries of MS, and work is ongoing in this area to help develop new treatments, predict the individual’s disease course and personalise treatment, so we are encouraged by the support this area will receive.
Another encouraging Budget announcement was the investment in the Frontiers Health and Medical Research Program a program to support researchers’ innovative ideas.
MS Research Australia has long championed this approach with its Incubator Grant program. MS Research Australia’s incubator program has seen a number of successful ‘out of the box’ ideas flourish and grow into potentially clinically relevant interventions, such as our recently announced blood test which was originally funded through our incubator program. Therefore we welcome this investment which will support the earliest stages of novel research and provide a pathway keep moving these innovations forward through the pipeline.
Clinical trials and registries
Further investment in clinical trials and registries is another promising avenue supported in this Budget. Clinical trials and high quality ‘real-world’ registry-based research is a crucial avenue to improve healthcare. Trials and registries are essential to determine the safety and efficacy of interventions. There are a number of treatment options for MS which are currently at the trial stage here in Australia or internationally. These include a number of cell based therapies, including mesenchymal and haematopoietic stem cells as well as novel immunotherapies. More information on these treatments can be found here.
This announcement is particularly vital for medications and interventions that may not have a commercial return and therefore need to be developed outside the commercial sector. A prime example of this is the MS Research Australia PrevANZ Vitamin D MS Prevention Trial. This is potentially a cheap and simple intervention that could transform the management of people at risk of developing MS.
We have also seen examples of international and local commercial trials that have been attracted to Australia by the Government’s strong R&D tax incentives, giving Australians a chance to be part of these studies. Therefore it is great to see in this Budget that clinical trials will be exempt from the new R&D tax incentive cap.
Another important area set to transform medical research is data sharing. The government plans to implement new data sharing and data release policies to try and reduce barriers allowing and encouraging the sharing of data. This may allow researchers more ready access to population based health and medical data, accelerating the realisation of health benefits from the era of data and information science.
Funding for the NHMRC & ARC
While the Budget also included a small inflationary increase in funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC), it was disappointing not to see a much bigger commitment to these crucial funding bodies. Despite maintaining a static level of investment in these funds over many years, this has meant a contraction in real terms as the funds have not kept pace with the rising costs of research. While the MRFF provides another vital source of funds for clinical and translational science, investment in discovery science and the research workforce cannot fall behind – this is the start of the pipeline of discoveries to fuel the next frontiers in health care.