Dr Parmjeet Parmar: New Zealand must allow biotechnology to flourish

Opinion 29/08/2019

By Dr Parmjeet Parmar, National Party MP, Research, Science and Innovation spokesperson.

Every day, 63 New Zealanders will find out they have cancer. For some of them, they’ll be told it’s terminal, with limited treatment options and an estimate of the time they’ve got left.

But there is a biotechnological treatment that might work for those patients.

Involving live genetically modified cells being introduced into the blood stream to attack and kill cancerous cells, it sounds like the stuff of science fiction – but it’s reality.

I recently attended the launch of David Downs’s book documenting his recovery from terminal lymphoma, supported by the Malaghan Institute, New Zealand’s leading independent immunotherapy research institute.

David’s recovery is down to a lifesaving immunotherapy trial using CAR T-cells.

That he is now completely free of cancer shows the incredible power of this biotechnological innovation.

But David had to travel to the United States to be included in this immunotherapy trial. The travel and the price tag were an immense stress – and are far out of reach for most Kiwis – so David set up a Givealittle page.

Our own scientists in New Zealand are capable of producing CAR T-cells.

In fact, we already have a research institute – the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research – producing the cells, which are taken from the patient and genetically modified to make them cancer-beating.

They’re then injected back into patients. The advantage of this over chemotherapy is that they don’t kill the healthy, non-cancerous cells like chemo does, shortening recovery times and avoiding many nasty side effects.

In an ideal world, this technology would be available everywhere, so that patients like David aren’t forced to shell out close to a million dollars and travel halfway around the world. Givealittle pages funding lifesaving treatments would be a thing of the past.

The previous Government provided the largest ever increase in health research funding in New Zealand, raising it by 56 per cent over four years. National is a party of innovation.

And we’ve already pledged to add $200 million in ringfenced funding to PHARMAC, specifically for cancer drugs.

And National’s cancer plan is for an independent, expert-led cancer agency that’s recognised as the best way to ensure prevention, early detection and high-quality treatment, following international best practice.

Cancers are adaptable and change form as they gradually – or sometimes rapidly – take over a patient’s body. We need to explore and adopt all possible means of tackling it – and biotechnology is just one tool in this arsenal.

What’s holding New Zealand up in the biotechnological space is the current regulatory framework – underpinned by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.

Biotechnology has moved on so quickly that this legislation is now out of date.

If we want to be biotechnological innovators, with access to new and innovative treatments, we need to reform the HSNO Act.

The Malaghan Institute sought approval under the Act to commence trials and commercial applications last year – they’re still waiting. Cancer, and technology, moves far more rapidly than our regulations. This needs to change.

All patients should have access to the best possible cancer treatment, and it should be timely. 

Immunotherapy using biotechnology is an exciting, world-class cancer treatment that could drastically improve Kiwi cancer sufferers’ quality of life – and New Zealand should support that.

Dr Parmjeet Parmar is the National Party's Research, Science and Innovation spokesperson.