More than Linear growth for drug trials in COVID-free WA

14/09/2020 - 08:00

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Perth’s largest drug testing company plans to nearly double capacity as WA attracts attention from global pharmaceutical companies.

Jayden Rogers says WA’s COVID-19 status has presented researchers with a great opportunity. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Linear Clinical Research has achieved spectacular growth over the past three years.

It has tripled in size over that period, with revenue hitting $24.7 million in the year to December 2019.

With the Nedlands-based drug-testing company about to launch an expansion, chief executive Jayden Rogers expects even more growth in future.

“The growth pales next to what we expect over the future,” Mr Rogers told Business News.

Linear’s expansion comes at a time when hundreds of clinical drug trials around the world have been cancelled because of the added health risks caused by COVID-19.

Globally, it has been estimated that 80 per cent of non-COVID drug tests have been cancelled this year, as medical centres try to minimise the number of people on their premises.

Western Australia’s ability to avoid community transmission of COVID has made it a more attractive place to conduct clinical drug trials.

“There is a huge opportunity at the moment,” Mr Rogers said.

“We are one of the few sites that has grown during this period.”

Linear’s largest market has been US pharmaceutical companies, but in recent years it has been winning more work with businesses from China.

That was illustrated earlier this year when Linear was selected to conduct human trials of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed by China’s Clover Biopharmaceuticals.

As well as WA’s ‘COVID-free’ status, Mr Rogers said the contract was based on Linear’s extensive experience in drug testing.

It has conducted more than 300 early-phase drug trials since being established by the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in 2010.

Another plus was Linear’s digital innovation; it was the first site in Australia (and one of only a few in the world) to successfully adopt electronic data-capture technology.

“It also reflects Linear’s long term investment in China and ongoing relationships with the pioneers of China’s global biopharmaceutical industry,” Mr Rogers said.

About 4,000 WA people registered to participate in the COVID trial, a record for Linear.

Just 140 were selected to participate in the phase one trial.

If successful, a trial involving thousands of people around the world would follow.

ASX-listed Botanix Pharmaceuticals, which had planned a national trial of a new medication designed to reduce the risk of post-surgical infections, provided another example of WA’s standing as a drug-testing centre.

After some delays, Botanix announced last month that it had partnered with Murdoch University to conduct the phase 2a clinical trial exclusively in WA.

Linear’s trials typically comprise testing of cancer drugs using patients with advanced cancer, or trials of non-cancer drugs using healthy volunteers.

“We have the busiest team in phase one cancer trials in Australia,” Mr Rogers said.

Linear is competing head-to-head with big drug-testing facilities in the US.

It says it can complete clinical trials faster and at half the cost of other countries, helped by regulatory settings and tax breaks in Australia.

Mr Rogers said Linear’s success was shown by its participation in cancer trials alongside the world’s two leading cancer hospitals: the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Linear has between 24 and 32 beds and dosing chairs, depending on how they are configured to meet the needs of different trials.

To cope with pressure on its premises, it has been using space in the Perkins building for screening of volunteers.

Linear is planning to invest $5 million to establish a dedicated cancer trial clinic that will have upwards of 20 beds and chairs.

Mr Rogers said Linear was also planning ‘tele’ trials, so that drug testing was more accessible to people in their homes.

Lotterywest and the Stan Perron Charitable Foundation are supporting the $5 million expansion.

Linear is also using the final tranche of money from a $9.5 million state government grant it secured at the time of its establishment.

Linear has plans to employ more staff, which has grown to 250, with a mix of full timers, part timers and casuals Mr Rogers said the growth at Linear had a flow-on effect in WA, particularly to local pathology labs and medical research institutes.

The company is also working with ASX-listed Emerald Clinics, whose chief executive, Michael Winlo, formerly ran Linear and sits on the Linear board.

Emerald was engaged to support the evaluation of trial participants over a two-year period for the COVID-19 vaccine study.

Separately, Linear has a commercial agreement to provide a digital patient database and related data management services to Emerald.

The two companies are part of the ecosystem of biotech and pharmaceutical companies in WA the state government hopes to build into something bigger.

Early this year, the government established an industry reference group to help develop a growth plan for the sector.

Chaired by WA’s chief scientist Peter Klinken, the reference group includes Dr Winlo along with representatives from biotech companies Epichem, Pfizer, and OncoRes Medical, the Telethon Kids Institute, venture capital investor Yuuwa Capital, and intellectual property firm Wrays.

Wrays chairman Gary Cox said WA’s success in this sector was clear from the number of innovative products developed in the state.

He said Australia had developed about a dozen drugs that had received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Of these, five were developed in WA, by biotech companies iCeutica and Sarepta Therapeutics in partnership with local universities, while Wrays helped secure patents for all.

In addition, Wrays is advising ASX-listed Dimerix, which recently achieved a milestone when it completed successful stage two clinical trials for a product that treats diabetic kidney disease.

“These are great examples of world-class intellectual property being developed in WA and making a real impact on the world pharmaceuticals market,” Mr Cox said.

However, a major challenge for WA – and for the government’s growth plan – is that drug development is rarely followed by commercial development.

Sarepta and iCeutica, for instance, are now based in the US under new ownership.

In that context, Linear Clinical’s commercial success is all the more notable.

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