DR Yolanda Augustin is hoping to beat the s*** out of (bowel) cancer — and she’s recruiting help from the public.

The Malaysian oncology doctor, who is pursuing her specialist training in London, is working with a team at St George’s, University of London, to find affordable and effective treatment for bowel cancer.

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related morbidity and mortality, with more than one million new cases per year worldwide.

Current treatments involve complex combinations of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. These measures, however, haven’t increased overall survival beyond 60%, five years after the patients receive a diagnosis.

The team at St George’s is looking to repurpose artesunate — a safe, well-tolerated and affordable antimalarial drug — to treat colorectal cancer.

However, because of the nature of the research, the team has had to look at an unusual method of funding its work.

Dr Augustin tells The Rakyat Post that the decision to turn to crowdfunding was a logical choice, given their circumstances.

“At present, it is very difficult for small research studies like ours to obtain grant funding.

“As our research is repurposing an off-patent drug that is relatively cheap, it doesn’t attract pharmaceutical industry sponsorship either.”

She says these challenges spurred the researchers to step out and seek alternative methods of raising funds.

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

“It also opens up a dialogue between doctors, scientists and the general public, making scientific research open, transparent and accessible.”

Response to the team’s research and funding efforts have been encouraging. Since starting, the crowdfunding campaign for phase II clinical trial in bowel cancer has hit nearly 75% of its target of £50,000 (RM323,000).

“We had heard of crowdfunding platforms before for business, the arts and technology, but in the area of medical research and life sciences, this seemed like quite a novel method of raising the funds needed for our planned research compared to the traditional grant application and pharma sponsored routes,” says Dr Augustin.

“We knew that we had an interesting and important research question and a decent amount of basic lab research in cancer cell lines to demonstrate biological plausibility for artesunate having anticancer effects.”

This led the team to do the Phase I study of pre-operative artesunate in patients with operable colorectal cancer.

Following the results of that study, which was published in January this year, the team designed a larger Phase II study.

While it requires a good amount of time, effort and a good publicity strategy to help raise awareness about the campaign, Dr Augustin sees several advantages to raising funds for scientific research through crowdfunding.

For one, funds raised 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.

In addition, each backer knows exactly what their contribution is supporting.

Crowdfunding for science also opens a dialogue between the public and scientists, provides a means of funding innovative research and promotes transparency in research funding.

The team believes that this method of raising funds will become increasingly important as a way of complementing conventional and existing funding streams.

Indeed, an online search reveals several crowdfunding platforms specifically for scientific research.

The team is hoping to open recruitment for Phase II in January 2016 and report its initial results in two-and-a-half years.

The team is also exploring the possibility of conducting similar/mirror studies in Malaysia and is in early discussions with potential research collaborators.

To find out more about the research and to make a donation, visit https://www.futsci.com/project/antimalarial-cancer

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