Lab Canada

Academia-industry collaboration to develop new cancer treatment

Montreal, QC – Pharmaceutical company Pharmascience and the Université de Montréal have signed an agreement that furthers a collaboration between academic research, public institutions, patient disease groups and the pharmaceutical industry. The agreement was coordinated by the university’s Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer – Commercialization of Research (IRICoR).

The result could be a new use for an old drug, and new hope for people with certain types of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a blood cancer which today has very few treatment options and only a 10 percent five-year survival rate.

Dr. Katherine Borden is a Montreal-born research scientist who is Canada Research Chair in the Molecular Biology of the Cell Nucleus and a professor in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology in the Faculty of Medicine at Université de Montréal, as well as a Principal Investigator for the university’s Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC). Dr. Borden and her research team are focused on answering one of the fundamental questions in cancer biology: how do normal cells become transformed into cancer cells, particularly leukemia? Their research focuses on a particular protein, elF4E, and how its dysregulation leads to cells becoming cancerous, resulting in leukemia. Their understanding of this process led them to believe that an old anti-viral drug, ribavirin, might target elF4E and result in remission for some patients with AML.

To study this theory, Dr. Borden enlisted the support of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in the U.S., a patient support group dedicated to fighting blood cancers. Their funding permitted a small initial clinical study in collaboration with Drs. Wilson Miller and Sarit Assouline at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, using drug purchased in the United States, but for which supply was both expensive and unreliable. The study, published in 2009, showed promise for ribavirin in AML. Even though all 11 patients were very sick and had already failed other possible treatments, nine improved in a matter of months, without debilitating or dangerous side effects. Some patients went into remission, a previously unheard of result, and others had dramatic drops in the number of leukemia cells.

Co-founder of Montreal’s Pharmascience, Morris Goodman learned of Dr. Borden’s work and offered to have his company manufacture ribavirin free of charge at its Montreal plant specifically for her study. That supply permitted a second study to take place using ribavirin in combination with another therapy, but also led to the growth of further collaboration, resulting in the formal agreement just completed.

Pharmascience also assisted Dr. Borden’s team by donating the help of three analytical chemists from the company’s Aegera Therapeutics research team. One of the major issues facing AML patients on ribavirin is that they develop resistance to the drug over time. The Aegera chemists’ work showed that ribavirin was being modified in a particular way in these patients, making it ineffective. This finding allowed Dr. Borden’s team to develop a way to use another drug to, they hope, slow or stop this resistance process.

This understanding is slated to be implemented as a new clinical trial in the near future using a new supply of ribavirin produced and donated by Pharmascience. A further new study planned for the next year will examine ribavirin in combination with another drug as a first treatment in newly diagnosed AML patients.

Université de Montréal’s IRICoR was established to assist university researchers in the difficult task of commercializing their discoveries in immunology and cancer. IRICoR played a major role in establishing the partnership agreement between Université de Montréal and Pharmascience which moves the process for ribavirin an important step closer. The agreement lays out the framework for how Pharmascience would commercialize ribavirin for eventual use in AML, and potentially other cancers since eIF4E is elevated in about 30 percent of cancers.

“IRICoR and Université de Montréal are very pleased with the tremendous collaboration we have had with Pharmascience and see it as a model for possible other collaborations in the future,” said Michel Bouvier, Chief Executive Officer of IRICoR. “This project demonstrates the immense mutual benefits of having available in Montreal all the players necessary to permit the type of collaborations that are vital today to bring the benefits of new discoveries to patients.”