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Boost for medical research as Rudd campaigns on health

Kevin Rudd today will promise a $250 million investment fund, with the government and private sector contributing half each, to take Australian medical research breakthroughs “from the lab to the patient…

Kevin Rudd hopes to move the election battleground to the issue of health. AAP/Lukas Coch

Kevin Rudd today will promise a $250 million investment fund, with the government and private sector contributing half each, to take Australian medical research breakthroughs “from the lab to the patient”.

Continuing his push on health Rudd will outline his “vision” for Australia to play a leading role in the “next frontier” of health care – developing and commercialising “regenerative medicine”.

This involves replacing or regenerating human cells, tissue or organs.

Rudd will highlight the work of researchers such as Professor Melissa Little of the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience whose team has been convincing tissue cells they are kidney stem cells, and introducing these into the patients to replace damaged cells so as to regenerate the organs.

This work holds out the prospect of engineering fully grown kidneys. That would reduce the burden of kidney disease, cut demand for transplants and avoid intrusive treatments like dialysis.

The cost of treating end stage kidney disease from 2009 to 2020 is estimated to be about $12 billion to the federal government.

There is evidence an adult cell can be turned into a kidney stem cell, making it possible to harvest a skin or blood cell from a patient and convince it to become a kidney stem cell.

The time frame for the work is the next two decades.

Rudd will say that Labor help for such research through the new investment fund and further reforms to the medical research system will benefit not just patients but also boost the economy and create jobs.

In comments ahead of today’s announcement, Rudd said: “In the 20th century advances in immunisation and medicines were a driving force for improving human welfare. In the 21st century, the new frontier for medicine will be biological medicine – regenerative medicine and genomics.

“Australia can play a leading role in this next frontier like we have in the past with antibiotics and cochlear implants.”

Rudd said Australia had some of the best scientists in the world and a track record of great medical breakthroughs. “We need to back our researchers with the vision and investment they need to take their ideas from the laboratories to the doctor’s surgery”.

The research initiative, though extremely modest by comparison, is partly a counter to the cuts Labor has earlier made in research and higher education.

It forms an initial government response to the McKeon Review of Health and Medical Research. That recommended a Translational Biotech Fund for early-stage development of about $250 million funded by the federal government and the private sector on a matching basis.

Rudd says health is in Tony Abbott’s sights as he looks for cuts.

The government says Abbott has said he will freeze federal government medical research funding at current levels which, it says, would effectively cut funding by $88 million.