The Lounge Party – Looking back on 25 years

Mar 30 2023


To celebrate 25 years of HMRI, we're looking back at some of the key moments and successes that have shaped HMRI to be what it is today: a world-class medical research institute that meaningfully improves the health and wellbeing of our communitities.  


Friday 4 June 1999 saw the launch of PULSE, a fundraising group created to support the barely one-year-old Hunter Medical Research.

Pictured at the event is HMRI’s very first employee, Libby Rogers-McPhee between then Triple J Breakfast DJ, Adam Spencer, and the inaugural Young Medical Researcher of the Year award recipient, Dr Darren Shafren. Adam was there to host the night and interviewed Darren on stage between performances by former Tap Dogs, DJ sets and sampling a few bevvies.

Darren was on the way up. He’d received his award at a gala dinner held during National Medical Research Week in 1998. During that dinner, he was seated next to the CEO of Greater Building Society, John Arnold.

Their conversation sparked the start of a successful funding relationship that spawned the commercialisation of Darren’s research into the company ‘Viralytics’. 

Later that year, nominations for the inaugural Hunter Medical Research Project Grants were called. From the 32 applications received, four were awarded. Darren Shafren was awarded $25,000 in seed-funding from the Greater Building Society for a study titled ‘Virus receptor down regulator: a possible cure for the common cold’.

Darren and his team’s work focused on one of the causes of the common cold, the coxsackievirus. However, they discovered the virus’ effects on the immune system and the potential for it to be used as an anti-cancer virotherapy – a targeted therapy treatment using a virus that has been changed in the laboratory to find and destroy cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

“The beauty with this particular virus is that it’s attracted to a certain molecule that is found in abnormally high numbers on cancer cells. Not only does the virus actively seek out cancer cells [but] once it's inside the cell it replicates until it eventually bursts the cell,” explained Darren.

The University of Newcastle formed a start-up company called ViroTarg to facilitate commercialisation and capital-raising. It was acquired by biotech company Psiron before becoming Viralytics.

Shafren’s Coxsackievirus A21, which Viralytics called Cavatak, was trialled in a Phase I in melanoma between 2007 and 2010, and in 2012 the product entered a Phase II trial in advanced melanoma called 'CALM', short for CAvatak in Late Stage Melanoma'. The trial completed in 2015 with favourable results.

Then things got really serious.

In 2018, one of the biggest biotech sales in Australian history went down: Viralytics was acquired for $502 million by world-leading pharmaceutical company Merck.

This acquisition was the culmination of more than 20 years of development by Associate Professor Shafren, supported since inception by HMRI. The Greater Building Society (now Greater Bank) had supported the venture for 10 years, kicking it off in 1999 with just $25,000 in seed-funding following the inaugural HMRI gala dinner.

“An achievement of this magnitude demonstrates that this is a region capable of developing a start-up business to a global scale. This outstanding achievement by Associate Professor Shafren demonstrates not just excellence in research, but the sense of entrepreneurship and innovation that is part of the DNA of our institution,” said Professor Kevin Hall, then University of Newcastle Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation).

But Darren didn’t stop there.

In 2020, the now Professor Shafren launched ImmVirX, and recruited key research staff who were pivotal in Viralytics’ medical and commercial success. The company, whose name is an amalgamation of Immuno-oncology, Virus and X (combination therapy), is based in the office and laboratory space in the HMRI Building.

“We’re following a similar strategy to the one we employed with Viralytics, using a selected virus that will induce subtle changes within the tumour to enhance the therapies when treating them,” Professor Shafren said.

“But where we previously targeted melanoma, ImmVirX will focus on colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, head and neck cancer, and liver cancer.”

In 2022, it announced the successful completion of $22 million in fundraising, towards the first human studies of its new cancer treatment.

Darren says the success of both Viralytics and now ImmVirX would not have been possible without the support of the University of Newcastle and HMRI.

“Our approach to using RNA viruses to target cancer cells is based off work that I began as an early career researcher at HMRI,” he said.

“We have maintained our relationship as we transitioned to a private enterprise and continue to maintain our R&D facilities within the state-of-the-art HMRI building. It’s a partnership which continues to pay off.”