Melbourne biotech company Opthea targets global eye health

Dr Megan Baldwin, Opthea Managing Director and CEO

A Melbourne company motivated to improve eye health globally is drawing on local scientific talent to take advantage of the multi-billion dollar biopharma industry.

Opthea is an example of Australia’s burgeoning biotechnology sector. Emerging from Melbourne’s innovative hub, the company’s recent success has seen it raise more than A$17 million in capital for its research and development efforts focused on treatments for eye disease.

Founded on innovation and research

Opthea Managing Director and CEO Dr Megan Baldwin says the company’s success is founded on, and continues to benefit from, Melbourne’s strong innovation and research sector.

The intellectual property that underpins the company’s key technologies came out of research by Melbourne’s Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, together with the University of Helsinki.

“Melbourne is a biotech hub. There’s a number of innovative companies here, and that stems from the fact it’s a great research hub,” says Dr Baldwin.

Additionally, she says Australia has an excellent international reputation for doing research that is significant on the world stage and is now a growing force in commercialising that research.

The large number of quality research facilities in Melbourne—like the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and CSIRO—help to build momentum and enthusiasm within the biotechnology sector.

“Historically we’ve collaborated a lot with CSIRO, which has been a critical relationship as an emerging company,” says Dr Baldwin. “[We’ve] been able to tap into their resources, knowledge and expertise.”

Sight-saving technology

Dr Baldwin said the company’s most promising technology is a protein molecule made up of amino acids called OPT-302, designed to treat wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD).

Wet AMD is a progressive disease of the eye that is the leading cause of blindness in adults over the age of 50 in the western world.

While the drug is still in early clinical development and will require significant R&D to make it to market, results from current trials being run with patients in the United States demonstrate that it’s safe and may improve vision over and above the existing therapies.

Biopharma is transforming the pharmaceutical market due to their efficacy, safety and ability to address previously untreatable conditions, with leading biopharma products achieving annual revenues of more than A$2 billion.

Big business, with purpose

In addition to the company’s potent growth prospects, the life-changing nature of the work helps gel Opthea’s small team, which is comprised mostly of scientists.

“I think the fact that we have been scientists for many years and we’ve actively pursued roles and work in a space that has the potential to really benefit patients and improve lives is fundamental,” she says.

“It’s part of the culture of working in biotech and critical to maintain motivation—I can’t imagine working in a career where that was not the case.”

The exposure to high-calibre scientific talent is another big advantage of being based in Melbourne.

“We have a fantastic education system, universities, and research networks that foster scientific talent right from undergraduate study through to postgraduate and PhD research.

“We have fantastic groups and facilities. We’ve got great people coming through that system that feed into the biotech community.”

Liveability lures quality researchers

Dr Baldwin says the liveability and innovative culture of Melbourne is important for attracting quality researchers.

“Attracting international researchers is an element of that but also Australians that go overseas to get experience and then come back. Melbourne has a lot of lifestyle benefits together with a strong reputation that’s building as well—both things are important.

“Many young scientists go overseas and work in laboratories and companies, and many do come back and bring that experience with them. This also benefits the sector and the programs being developed by Australian companies.

“I lived in San Francisco and loved it, but Melbourne is a great city with great people—you can’t discount the fact that liveability is important.”