Admedus Immunotherapies: creators of life-saving global vaccines

Father of two, Neil Finlayson, 54, is Chief Executive Officer of Brisbane-based Admedus Immunotherapies.

Neil Finlayson
Working with immunologist and former Australian of the Year, Professor Ian Frazer, Admedus is developing therapeutic vaccines for the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases and cancers.

Where did you grow up?

“I was born in Ghana and unfortunately my mother passed away in child birth. My father then went to the United Kingdom but didn’t particularly like it and returned to Africa. I grew up in Uganda until I was about nine but that was the time when Idi Amin was in power and my stepmother insisted we pack our bags and leave Africa to go somewhere safe. We tried the UK again, but my father still didn’t like it, so we headed to Australia.”

You’re now the CEO of medical research company Admedus Immunotherapies — was this your dream job as a child?

“The dream for me was to become an astronaut. My namesake Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon and all those fuzzy, black and white pictures were being beamed around the world. Then as a teenager I was more interested in becoming a vet because biology was my favourite subject but by university I thought I would be better off being a doctor. In the end I went down the path of a scientist and graduated with honours in microbiology.”

How did you then end up in corporate management?

“I got a job in the microbiology department of the Royal Brisbane Hospital and realised it really wasn’t too exciting and decided to branch out into the business world. I dabbled in the stock market, got a finance degree and joined Westpac bank where I worked in the financial markets for seven years.”

These days you’re the ‘money man’ of Professor Ian Frazer (who developed the human papilloma virus vaccine Gardasil) and run the immunotherapy company he founded. How did you end up working with one of the most famous scientists in the world?

“While at Westpac one of my clients was the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and the company secretary there knew my background. In 1993, they had secured a joint venture in vaccine research which was a $42-million project of which they were the lead organisation. They needed someone who knew finance and could also understand what the scientists were talking about.

Professor Ian Frazer was one of our advisers and I got to know him quite well. Then, of course, he became famous and Australian of the Year and in 2011 I joined Admedus. I have no doubt he will win a Nobel Prize at some point in the future.”

What keeps you doing what you do?

“Vaccines are very much a public health benefit. At the end of the day, if you can secure something which is going to be of huge benefit you can say you’ve done some good in the world.

Of course, Ian already has the development of the Gardasil vaccine to his name, but if he can do that again with something we’re working on now it would be even more fantastic. We’re driven by trying to find answers to questions which can be of benefit to people.”

What are some of the benefits for people that you are trying to achieve?

“Our work, which is in part being funded by Advance Queensland, is our human papilloma virus therapeutic vaccine. Ian has most certainly solved the issue in terms of prevention — Gardasil is a very effective vaccine and numbers of cases are dropping — but there are still many people around the world who are infected with the virus.

Cervical screening is still required in women to try to catch the cancer early, but also there is a growing number of young people, more young men, who are developing head and neck cancer because of the virus due to changes in sexual practices. We’re hoping we can help with this.

In the clinic now we also have a HSV2 vaccine for genital herpes. Initially we thought it could be a vaccine to protect people from herpes, but during the first study we realised we could actually benefit people who already have the virus. Our technology showed us we needed to take the therapeutic approach.

The subjects in our study each have a number of outbreaks a year which are very painful and can be quite debilitating. We’re hoping the vaccine will not only reduce the amount of virus they have that causes them to transmit to others, but also to reduce the number of those painful outbreaks.”

How does Brisbane and Queensland rate in terms of world medical research?

“It’s a global market out there for vaccines and immunotherapies and you need to be willing to travel (Neil has also worked in London and Munich), but Australians have a proud history of making vaccines and it is something we are well known for in the global healthcare and scientific communities. Having a Government supportive of innovation and research helps us to convince people to come to Queensland and gives confidence to investors to continue to provide funding.

Money is always an issue but if you’re doing good research that finds answers to important questions then you can convince investors it is worthwhile.”
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