A drug manufacturing capability is being planned in the Hunter to create new jobs for the region and boost the security of Australia's medical supplies.
University of Newcastle Professor Jennifer Martin is spearheading a plan that could lead to "a med-tech hub across several related industries".
Pharmaceuticals have been pinpointed as a key sector to help the Hunter diversify its economy in the coming decades.
Professor Martin said the pandemic showed "Australia needs to be self-sufficient in its essential medicines".
This was highlighted by drug-supply shortages during the pandemic and the inability to manufacture the best vaccines.
She said Australia had a "glaring strategic weakness in our health system".
"We are at the end of a very long supply chain. Access to essential medicines is part of our security risk," she said.
"This is most evident in our inability to make the more effective Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines. Other nations have the capability to develop new and repurposed drugs and vaccines quickly and effectively."
She said China was "fast becoming one of the leading manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and the active pharmaceutical ingredients that go into medicines".
Australia's strategic need in this area presented a manufacturing opportunity for the Hunter. A partnership between the university, government, industry and private sector "could explore potential solutions".
Andrew Adamovich, managing director of AdvanCell Isotopes, said Newcastle had "great intellectual capital" and the expertise to develop drug manufacturing.
"It's a great time to be in Newcastle and be part of this emerging med-tech hub of clinicians and scientists," Mr Adamovich said.
AdvanCell, which has a lab and office at the University of Newcastle, is developing new cancer therapies.
The company has brought "top nuclear scientists and cancer clinicians from around Australia to Newcastle to help address an unmet need in treatment".
The Hunter has a big healthcare sector, including a "strong world-class presence in research through HMRI and the University of Newcastle".
Professor Martin said the Hunter had "core capability" in the Centre for Drug Repurposing and Medicines Research, which she heads.
This consisted of people with drug, therapeutic, regulatory, commercial and legal experience in the pharmaceutical world.
"The Hunter team already oversees a number of important drug repurposing programs," she said.
It is examining opportunities in Australia's $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative, which seeks to "map a new future for Australia". The initiative lists medical products as one of six national manufacturing priorities.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the plan last October, he said: "We need to keep making things in Australia. And with this strategy, we will".
Hunter Business Chamber chief executive Bob Hawes said medicine projects in the Hunter were a good example of the need to "keep those good ideas local".
"When that step to commercialisation takes place, I have no doubt there'd be business and industries interested in the Hunter."
Mr Hawes said good ideas in the Hunter were often sold overseas, but if government incentives and possibilities in research and development extend into manufacturing "we might see more traction locally".
Professor Martin has a long-standing interest in how to make drugs more effective.
"We could be a leader in drug repurposing for the nation. We have the technology tools to work out why some drugs have failed in the past. They could be resurrected for some populations, with new options for difficult to treat conditions such as cancer and other chronic diseases."
She said cannabis was "a classic example" and "many people knew it had potential". Professor Martin is director of the Australian Centre for Cannabinoid Clinical and Research Excellence.
She works on cannabis trials to help patients with advanced cancer with pain, hunger and nausea.
"We have a tight regulatory framework here, but we were able to provide some types of cannabinoid compounds for some patients," she said.
"But it was a cumbersome process and not efficient at all, as we had no set up for this type of repurposing."
She said the Hunter could leverage local capability for a national cannabis program and drug repurposing for ovarian cancer, for example.
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