Better treatment for common cancer16 September 2009

A better treatment for one of the world's most common cancers could be a reality if Warrapharm wins the lucrative UQ Business School Enterprize competition. As part of Enterprize, UQ Business School will provide an entrepreneurial company with $100,000 to boost their business and get new products onto the market. The annual competition is one of the most lucrative in Australia, and unlike many other competitions, UQ Business School does not take an ownership share in the new company. Colorectal cancer is one of the commonest cancers worldwide and Wollongong-based company Warrapharm is hoping to improve the first-line treatment for the 980,000 patients diagnosed with the disease each year. Dr Gavin Dixon, team leader of Warrapharm, said their treatment used two existing cancer drugs, which have been reformulated to reduce the adverse effects usually seen with the existing use of the drugs. Now the team is hoping to win Enterprize so they can advance the clinical development phase of the opportunity. "The next step is clinical trials, but we still need to get more regulatory advice because the trials are a very defined and complicated process, and we need input from experts in the field. Winning Enterprize will help cover the cost of the extra regulatory advice we need," Dr Dixon said. According to Dr Dixon, the Warrapharm opportunity began as a collaborative research project at the University of Wollongong in 2003 after a 'medicinal chemist and an oncologist began looking to solve some of the problems associated with treating colorectal cancer'. "Cancer drugs are toxic by nature, but there are other adverse effects on top of this with current treatment regimens, due in large part to the different chemical properties of the anti-cancer agents," he said. "The solution was to reformulate the treatments to make these agents co-exist." Dr Dixon said Warrapharm researchers have been able to reformulate two common chemotherapeutic agents, 5-Fluorouracil (5FU) and folinic acid, into a single, pH neutral product called Fluorodex. Preclinical results to date indicate the Fluorodex treatment is associated with fewer adverse effects than that caused by existing treatment regimens, including vein collapse and inflammation, infection, diarrohea, neuropathic pain and catheter blockage. Additionally, Dr Dixon said other studies have shown Fluorodex to be at least as effective in reducing tumor size as the existing treatments. "A lot of patients have to stop their therapy because of these adverse effects, and if patients can't tolerate the full course of treatment, the management of their disease is compromised. Put simply, the reformulated treatment has been designed to be more friendly to the bloodstream," he said. In addition to sparing patients the often painful side effects, Dr Dixon said the Fluorodex treatment is likely to yield significant cost and time savings for healthcare providers, reducing administration costs and the clinical burden associated with existing treatments. "A cost-benefit analysis indicates that the reduced adverse effect profile offered by Fluorodex treatment will translate to at least a $2500 saving per patient in comparison to that of existing treatments, and this may well be more. Nursing, facility and equipment costs are reduced," he said. While there are other new drugs coming onto the market, Dr Dixon said that a 5-FU based therapy will remain the first-line therapy for treatment of colorectal cancer for the foreseeable future. New compounds such as monoclonal antibodies would ideally be combined with Fluorodex as an 'adjuvant therapy' to combat colorectal cancer. In the meantime, Warrapharm are preparing for their final business presentation this month, and Dr Dixon thinks the team 'has a good chance' of winning the competition. "Competitions like Enterprize are vital for commercialising research. It's crucial to communicate the Fluorodex story to as wide an audience as possible, so that's why we jumped at the opportunity," he said. And even if they don't win, Dr Dixon said having to refine business plans, do market research and receive valuable feedback was a great experience for the team members and University of Wollongong researchers who were part of the project. "There is always a case for refining a business plan as opportunities change. We also had a business student get experience in assessing the market by doing the market research report," he said.