When Alexander Masters found out work on an oncolytic virus-based pancreatic cancer treatement at Sweden’s Uppsala University had halted, he raised the £2m ($3.2m) needed to take it to clinical trials from a millionaire sufferer of the disease who bought a place on the trial.
In an article intended to raise awareness of the trial funding model Masters explained: “There were no suitable EU grants for the Uppsala work; Swedish cancer charities have shallow pockets, and the Swedish government refuses to support clinical trials as a matter of policy.”
Support from a drugmaker was also unlikely according to Masters, who wrote that: “the patent situation was muddy, the target population small and the commercial risks unusually high.”
So instead Masters approached Magnus Essand, who led the University of Uppsala team that developed the therapeutic virus, who agreed to restart research if revenue could be found.
Masters and a team launched iCancer, a crowdfunding page. The site attracted roughly £1.8m from Vince Hamilton, a US oil millionaire and a sufferer of pancreatic cancer, who funded the trial in exchange for guaranteed access to the eventual biotherapeutic.
Hamilton also set up a $20m fund for research into other neuroendocrine cancer drugs, which has continued after his death in March this year.
The model is already being copied elsewhere, with David Stojdl of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, Canada, offering donors a place on a trial for Farmington virus (FARV – which targets brain cancers) in exchange for $2m.
And Masters is now trying to spread the unusual funding model to other diseases. He wants a scientific “dating agency” that matches peer-reviewed projects with rich funders interested in buying their way onto a trial in exchange for receiving the drug and subsidising around 19 other patients.
Whether the model can ever be applied to commercial clinical trials remains to be seen, as Masters acknowledges that it throws up many legal and moral questions.
Regulations for pharmaceutical companies are tighter than for universities and hospitals, and firms may run into problems if drugs harm participants outside approved trials, even under compassionate use rules, he said.
He also acknowledged his plan would only work for Phase I and IIa trials, as donors are unlikely to fund later, randomised trials where they may be given placebos.