WEHI spinout aims to revolutionize the development of cancer drugs

Australia has cemented its role in becoming a major player in the next generation of medicines with the launch of Ternarx – a globally competitive biotechnology company dedicated to finding new treatments for hard-to-treat cancers. 

The WEHI spinout is the first of its kind in Australia dedicated to developing targeted protein degrader medicines and technology, a powerful new tool for destroying disease-causing proteins that cannot be targeted by conventional drugs.

Ternarx is backed by $15 million in funding from the Australian Medical Research Future Fund's (MRFF) Frontier Health and Medical Research initiative and by support from Melbourne-based medical research institute WEHI. 

The company has been officially launched by the Australian Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler.

While scientists have uncovered many of the drivers of cancer, about 80% of all disease-causing proteins have been considered "undruggable". 

New biotechnology company, Ternarx, aims at changing this statistic through the development of targeted protein degrader (TPD) technology, which is designed to destroy these "undruggable" proteins. 

Unlike conventional drugs that only inhibit the activity of proteins, TPDs can target and destroy disease-causing proteins, completely removing the proteins from the cancer. 

Ternarx is the first company of its kind in Australia, focusing on the development of TPD medicines and technology. 

In 2023, the MRFF's Frontier Health and Medical Research initiative awarded $15 million in funding to establish the Australian Centre for Targeted Therapeutics (ACTT) – a collaboration between experts from WEHI, the Children's Cancer Institute and Monash University. WEHI has now spun out Ternarx to form a globally competitive biotech company and commercialize the ACTT technology. 

It is an honor to officially launch Ternarx, a significant and exciting addition to Australia's growing, high-quality medical and biotech sector. The technology it is pursuing has huge potential to create the next generation of treatments for cancer and other diseases that are currently untreatable. 

Ternarx is proof that Australia's health and medical researchers are world leading. With support from the MRFF, our brilliant researchers can turn their ideas into new treatments that have potential to save thousands of lives, not just here but around the world." 

Mark Butler, Minister for Health and Aged Care

Unlocking the 'undruggable' 

WEHI director Professor Ken Smith said the landmark initiative would help establish Australia as a leader in this frontier field. 

"With the potential to unlock the 'undruggable', targeted protein degrader technology is one of the most exciting advances in drug discovery and development," Prof Smith said. 

"The establishment of Ternarx is a testament to the wealth of scientific knowledge that exists on our shores, and our ability to remain at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies that have real potential to make a difference to our communities. 

"To have the greatest impact on human health, we need to continually drive the translation of our discoveries into the new homegrown treatments, diagnostics and devices required to ensure we can live healthier, for longer. 

"We thank the MRFF for continually backing the nation's brightest researchers, helping us to bridge the critical gap between discovery and translation and ensuring that we can confidently tackle our hardest health challenges." 

A new frontier in medicine

Ternarx will initially focus on developing new treatments for neuroblastoma and prostate cancer. 

Neuroblastoma is a childhood cancer that claims more lives of children under five than any other cancer, while prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Australian men. 

Ternarx CEO, Dr Joanne Boag, said the company will be using and developing novel TPD technology to create new drug candidates and ultimately new ways to treat these cancers and, potentially, other diseases. 

"Neuroblastoma and some forms of prostate cancer urgently need new treatments, as evidenced by poor patient outcomes," Dr Boag said. 

"TPD technology opens up new avenues to attack these and other hard to treat cancers by delivering precision treatment options. 

"This technology could revolutionize treatments for the millions of people in Australia and around the world who continue to live with notoriously difficult-to-treat diseases, including cancer and autoimmune conditions." 

While the initial focus will be cancer, the TPD technology developed by Ternarx has the potential to be applied to a range of disease-causing proteins, including those associated with currently untreatable inflammatory diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease. 

Harnessing expertise 

Ternarx will leverage Australia's top cancer experts and research to progress new TPD treatments towards clinical trials, bringing together a core team with deep research expertise as well as biopharmaceutical drug discovery and management experience. 

With further investment, the company has the potential to deliver significant revenue into Australia through co-development and licensing deals, with the TPD market size forecast to grow to USD $3.3 billion by 2030. 

Through its Scientific Advisory Board and other scientific engagements, Ternarx will draw world-leading scientific expertise from Australian scientists Professor John Silke (WEHI), Professor Guillaume Lessene (WEHI), Professor David Komander (WEHI), Professor Michelle Haber (Children's Cancer Institute) and Professor Susan Charman (Monash University). 

The Ternarx management team is composed of high-calibre scientists with experience in the biopharmaceutical sector: 

  • Dr Joanne Boag, CEO 
  • Dianna McKiernan, COO 
  • Dr Nicole Trainor, Lead Chemist 
  • Dr Bernhard Lechtenberg, Structural and Cell Biology Lead (part appointment) 
  • Dr Rebecca Feltham, Target Biology Lead (part appointment) 

The Ternarx Board incorporates senior leaders with a track record in governing and developing innovative biopharmaceutical companies delivering world-class R&D programs: 

  • Dr Victoria Jameson, Business Development lead, WEHI 
  • Dr Amanda Reese, Director, Enterprise, Monash University 
  • Dr Chris Burns, Managing Director and CEO, Amplia Therapeutics 


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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