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Marrying science with business rigour to outsmart cancer

Watch Drs. Rennie and Cherkasov explain how their new technology works.

A Canadian technology that could outsmart cancer scored a major investment in December from Roche, a pharmaceutical giant with more than 600 employees in Canada and over 90,000 globally. The licensing deal, worth up to US$140 million, is the largest ever made by the University of British Columbia (UBC), and much of the credit goes to PC-TRiADD – the commercialization arm of the Vancouver Prostate Centre.

The new drug technology could one day be used to treat advanced prostate cancers that have become resistant to existing treatments. The goal is to have a simple pill that prostate cancer patients can take daily.

A computer model showing an androgen receptor (blue)a key site on cells where overexpressed hormones bind to the DNA (purple) and cause prostate cancer. PC-TRiADD is supporting the development of a new drug (yellow) designed to shut down this process.

PC-TRiADD applied its business acumen to the scientific process to identify the most promising technologies, protect the intellectual property (IP) and generate the scientific data required to support IP claims and regulatory submissions to Health Canada.

“Without support from PC-TRiADD, moving this technology forward would have been more of a struggle,” says Martin Gleave, Chief Executive Officer of the Vancouver Prostate Centre and PC-TRiADD. “We have put in very industrial-like processes for cherry picking the best research and moving it more rapidly along the commercialization pipeline.”

Prostate cancer that is diagnosed early is frequently curable through surgery and/or radiotherapy. More advanced cases use drugs that shrink the tumour by blocking activation of the male hormone receptor (androgen), which promotes tumour growth. But after just a few months, the androgen receptor often mutates and can no longer be blocked by drugs. At this point, the drug-resistant cancer spreads quickly and is virtually incurable.

The new treatment, developed by a research team led by Paul Rennie and Artem Cherkasov, is designed to outsmart cancer and inhibit tumour growth by disabling the androgen receptor where it binds to a specific part of the DNA that is not prone to mutation. This opens the possibility of designing drugs that could be effective for a long time. The drug candidate was developed using new computer technology that scanned a database of millions of different molecules to identify a handful that appear to work well as possible treatments.

“We’re at a stage now that we need the right pharmaceutical partner to help to move this technology from a discovery into a finished product,” said Dr. Rennie, a member of PC-TRiADD’s management team and director of laboratory research at the Vancouver Prostate Centre, a research hub hosted by UBC and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI).

Under the terms of the agreement negotiated by UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office, UBC and VCHRI expect to receive an upfront payment, and up to US$140 million in pre-clinical, clinical and sales milestone payments for the first product to reach the market, and royalties thereafter. The scientists will share 50% of the university net revenues.

“Roche will be responsible for funding all of those aspects and the clinical development of the compound,” says Graeme Boniface, Chief Operating Officer of PC-TRiADD. “You need big pharma involved to move from the early, pre-clinical stage to later stage development.”

The licensing agreement also stipulates that research will continue in collaboration with the Vancouver Prostate Centre and PC-TRiADD.

“PC-TRiADD general support provided an environment with the right tools and people to cultivate innovation, and PC-TRiADD specific support of the AR-DBD inhibitor project significantly de-risked the technology,” says Brad Wheeler, Technology Transfer Manager, University of British Columbia. “This was not a typical academic project available for licensing – the licensed patents were backed by a body of work that brought the technology to the next level, which resulted in UBC’s largest license.”

What makes the deal particularly unique is that Roche licensed it at such an early development stage, says Dr. Boniface. “Often big pharma steps in once you’ve done a phase one clinical trial so there’s clinical data to support further development of the drug. But because of the groundwork we did—including protecting the IP—we had a lot of early interest from the private sector.”

In addition to PC-TRiADD and Roche, others funding the research include Prostate Cancer Canada, Prostate Cancer Foundation (U.S.), Safeway Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Clinical trials of the new treatment are expected to begin before 2020.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men, and the fourth most common cause of cancer death, resulting in more than 4,000 deaths each year in Canada.