From the development of cobalt-60 radiation for tumours to the use of small-molecule inhibitors to block the growth of cancer stem cells, Canada boasts a rich history of innovations in oncology. But driving these innovations from research laboratories to clinical applications remains a significant challenge.
“We’ve seen innovations languish in the lab because of the lack of investment capital to move them into clinical trials,” says David O’Neill, president of FACIT, a commercialization venture group that works with the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) to bring the province’s best oncology discoveries to market. “Those discoveries that do make it past the lab are often acquired prematurely by U.S.-based pharmaceutical companies that might not make them a priority because they’ve got so many other projects in the pipeline.”
This inability to bridge the gap between innovation and commercialization translates into lost economic opportunities for Canadians, as pharmaceutical jobs and manufacturing contracts leave the country in the wake of a foreign acquisition or licensing agreement for a drug discovery.
“But more importantly, Canadian patients with cancer may have to wait a decade for these innovations to come back to Canada,” says Dr. O’Neill. “We really need to take responsibility for ensuring we capitalize on our investments in research and increase access to clinical trials and treatment for Canadians living with cancer.”
This was the reason behind the creation of FACIT, an independent for-profit corporation that drives local development of Ontario innovations by providing seed capital, executive management, corporate and market guidance, and access to industry and investor networks.
While FACIT’s primary focus is on discoveries originating from its strategic partner, OICR, it also identifies and supports innovative cancer technologies across the province through two funding programs: a Prospects Fund that provides up to $200,000 for early-stage projects, and its Compass Rose Fund, which invests up to $5-million for early-stage projects with clear commercial potential.
FACIT also promotes Ontario discoveries through its annual Falcons’ Fortunes competition, where entrepreneurs pitch their cancer-focused innovations to an investor panel for a chance at a $50,000 investment. This year’s competition, which showcases six Ontario-based finalists, is scheduled to take place today, on World Cancer Day.
“Our goal is to drive commercialization in the province and make it attractive for entrepreneurs and investors to capitalize on the research and clinical infrastructure in Ontario,” says Dr. O’Neill. “As home to many of the leading experts in cancer research and one of the most genetically diverse populations in the world, Ontario has the attractive characteristics for robust clinical trials.”
To date, FACIT has supported close to 60 projects and created 16 Ontario companies with direct and leveraged funding of over $850-million. Its commercialization model has produced many success stories, including last year’s historic $1-billion (U.S.) partnership between Triphase Accelerator – a private drug development company with FACIT as majority shareholder – and New Jersey-based Celgene Corporation, to advance an OICR-discovered blood cancer therapy using Ontario researchers and clinical sites.
“With this partnership, we are providing a local pathway from discovery to development, and increasing access to future clinical trials for Canadian patients,” says Dr. O’Neill. “This pathway is something we’ve never had before in Ontario.”
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