Crowdsourcing a cancer drug: how the public can bring a new (old) drug to trial

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crowdfunding handsResearchers are hoping to launch one of the UK’s first successfully crowdfunded clinical trials – using public support to repurpose an antimalarial drug to treat patients with bowel cancer.

A preliminary study shows that doses of artesunate, a common antimalarial drug, could improve survival in patients suffering from bowel cancer. Here’s where the public comes in.

Artesunate is an artemisinin – an extract from the sweet wormwood plant, Artemisia annua. According to the researchers, artemisinins have been used for over two millennia in traditional Chinese medicine.

Today, artemisinins are one of the most widely used antimalarial compounds. Artesunate is on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of essential medicines (WHO 2013).


Artemisia annua

But the usefulness of the compounds didn’t stop there. Drug repurposing – using existing medicines to treat other conditions – is taking the medical field by storm. Medicines that are already approved for general use tend to be safe, cheap and effective – it’s much more efficient to set them to a new task than to design a new drug.

So when studies started to confirm that artesunate could also kill cancer cells, researchers led by Prof Sanjeev Krishna and Prof Devinder Kumar of St George’s University of London took notice.

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer related morbidity and mortality.  Each day in the UK, 110 new colorectal cancer cases are diagnosed – and their outlook can be particularly poor.

Prof Krishna and Prof Kumar prepared a small clinical study of patients with bowel cancer, offering a supplementary dose of artesunate alongside a placebo. In the small clinical pilot trial of 23 patients, only 1 patient in the artesunate group had a recurrence of their cancer after 42 months, compared to 6 in the placebo group.

“We now need to do larger studies to see if these encouraging results are confirmed,” the team explains.

But it’s a poor financial climate for securing research funding – so the team has turned to something extraordinary.

A small charity, Bowel Disease UK, started by Gary Douch, a patient of Prof Kumar’s formed a partnership with FutSci, an organisation that hopes to support crowdfunding for research, innovation and technology in the life sciences. Together they have launched a crowdfunding campaign to try and raise the funds needed to conduct a larger phase II trial in 140 patients. This campaign will run for 3 months till 22/12/2015.

“This was an opportunity for us to step out and do something different,” says team member Dr Yolanda Augustin, a clinical research fellow at St George’s, University of London.

Crowdfunding may offer a certain feeling of immediacy and direct contribution that could appeal to modern society.

“We particularly liked that the crowdfunding aspect gives funders the ability to see what they’re backing and what effects it has,” Dr Augustin says.

The funds raised will go straight into supporting study-related costs such as academic trial sponsorship, conduct and data monitoring fees, research pharmacy fees, the cost of purchasing the study drug and matching placebo, and the cost of conducting specialised molecular tests.Research

The minimum funding threshold to support this study is £5,000 (in order for the trial to go ahead). Fifty thousand pounds will enable the researchers to pay for academic trial sponsorship, conduct and data monitoring fees, pharmacy fees and drug costs.

Additional funding raised beyond that will enable the team to carry out specialised molecular testing to see if patients with particular tumour profiles respond better to artesunate treatment.

The researchers will notify backing funders of the outcomes of the trial, which, if successfully funded, will be one of the first of its kind to launch in the UK.
[hr] Learn more about the project here


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