University of Queensland pain drug pioneer Professor Maree Smith has joined an elite group of scientists tonight, receiving the prestigious ATSE Clunies Ross Award.

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Clunies Ross Awards recognise contributions to the application of technology for the benefit of Australia and embodies the nation’s drive to transform its economy through an enhanced innovation agenda.

UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj said Professor Smith was a “scientific superstar”.

“As the inventor of the new EMA401 oral drug for chronic pain, Maree is at the cutting edge of pain research,” he said.

International EMA401 phase 3 clinical trials are due to start soon.

“Her drug discovery was the basis last year for Australia’s largest-ever biotech deal, and it is likely to change the lives of millions of people worldwide who live with chronic pain.”

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis International AG bought Professor Smith’s technology in June last year in a $A260 million upfront cash deal. The Swiss multinational will make undisclosed clinical development and regulatory milestone payments.

Financial media have estimated the total deal at around $A1 billion.

Novartis bought the technology through the acquisition of Spinifex Pharmaceuticals, a company founded by UQ’s main commercialisation arm, UniQuest.

UniQuest CEO Dr Dean Moss said Professor Smith has played an active role in the Australian biotechnology industry over many years.

“Professor Smith has been at the forefront of translational research at UQ for over two decades.  She is a prolific inventor, and her achievements are a shining example of successful innovation, collaboration and engagement,” Dr Moss said.

Professor Høj said the deal built on UQ’s spectacular commercial translation achievements, which included the world’s first cancer vaccine, Gardasil.

Professor Smith’s technology brings a much-needed treatment option closer to reality for millions of people around the world suffering from neuropathic (nerve) pain and chronic inflammatory pain.

“Nerve pain such as post-herpetic neuralgia that may develop following the shingles, or that induced by cancer chemotherapy, is notoriously difficult to treat,” she said.

“Currently available drug treatments for nerve pain are either ineffective or patients discontinue treatment due to the central nervous system side-effects.

“The new drug, EMA401, doesn’t cross the blood-brain-barrier and so doesn’t cause central nervous system side-effects.”

Professor’s Smith is the 10th UQ scientist to receive the ATSE Clunies Ross Award. The other nine are:

  • Professor Zhiguo Yuan (2015)
  • Associate Professor Leigh Ward (2015)
  • Professor Gideon Chitombo (2012)
  • Professor Stuart Crozier (2012)
  • Professor Ian Frazer (2007)
  • Dr Jeff Rowlands (2004)
  • Professor David Doddrell (2003)
  • Professor John Irwin (2002)
  • Professor Peter Spadrow (1995)

The awards have been running for 25 years and honour Sir Ian Clunies Ross (1899-1959), the foundation head of the CSIRO’s Division of Animal Health and later a CSIRO chairman.

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