New Brunswick’s Soricimed finds potential cancer cure in shrew venom, needs cash infusion to continue research
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Drug and diagnostic development
Seven years in business, started by trapping shrews in founder's back yard.
The northern short-tailed shrew punches way above its weight.
Not only is the mouse-sized, pointy-faced animal a rare venomous mammal, it may also host a cure for certain types of cancer.
A New Brunswick company, Soricimed Biopharma, is trying to bring that cure to market. But, like the shrew, it must face the reality of diminutive appearances. Located in a tiny New Brunswick town and associated with a university not known for medical research, the pint-sized company is struggling to have its voice heard on the international market—and attract the funds it needs to keep working towards a cancer cure.
Jack Stewart—formerly a biochemistry professor at New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University—founded Soricimed after he accidentally discovered the potential power of soricidin, the chemical in shrew venom that causes paralysis in the animal’s prey.
He wanted to isolate the compound to use as pain medication, so he and other researchers set out to trap shrews in his backyard.
The animals proved elusive.
“Eventually we found the little beasts went mad over pepperoni sausage, the cheapest No-Name brands we could find,” Stewart says.
Once he got the animals to the lab, Stewart needed cells to initiate tests. He says the first ones available were ovarian cancer lines being researched by a colleague. He dosed them with soricidin, and they died.
Stewart knew he had something, so to commercialize the discovery he co-founded his company with president and CEO Paul Gunn in 2005. It turns out that soricidin prevents calcium from entering tumours, bringing about the destruction of cancer cells. This discovery has far-reaching implications, but the company is focusing on the treatment of ovarian, breast, and prostate cancer, as well as a blood test that can detect Stage I cancer.
The research is already advanced—phase 1 of human clinical trials starts in June and should wrap up by the end of the year. That will eat up an estimated $2.5 million of the $10.5 million in funding Soricimed has raised so far.
And further tests will be much more expensive. Gunn estimates phase 2 trials could run between $4 million and $30 million, and phase 3 upwards of $100 million. Plus, the company has already spent $342,000 on patents in the U.S., Canada and around the world.
But New Brunswick is short on both venture capital and public funding. It had the lowest Canadian Institutes of Health Research (the federal body that funds health research) investment of any province in 2009-10—only $1.46 per capita, compared to $26.03 for Ontario and Nova Scotia.
Gunn says the province simply doesn’t have a platform to support the life sciences.
“Biotech in New Brunswick is centred around work on trees, potatoes or fish,” he says.
To move forward, Soricimed needs a serious cash injection that simply isn’t possible at home. So, Stewart and Gunn are looking to either partner with a large pharmaceutical company, or sell their business outright.
“People say, ‘You can’t be serious, doing this in New Brunswick,’” says Gunn. “We’ve spent considerable time getting over the image of being someplace you shouldn’t be.”
Soricimed’s location—with the business office in Moncton and labs in Sackville, a tiny town about 45 minutes south-east of the city—may pose a marketing problem, but it hasn’t hampered the research.
“We have a virtual business model. From an operating point of view, we don’t need to be anywhere else,” says Gunn. “We can have work done wherever the expertise lies.”
And, he says, now is the time to become visible on the world stage.
The company is making the rounds at trade shows and looking to hire a communications and marketing specialist. Stewart, the chairman and chief science officer, has booked speaking engagements to get the word out. In addition, Soricimed has retained a business development group, Partner International, to create white papers and make initial contacts with biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the Americas, Europe, and Japan.
“We’ve started to generate significant interest,” says Gunn.
A targeted approach to sales and marketing is essential, says Veronika Litinski, senior advisor at MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto-based entrepreneurial support organization.
Soricimed should figure out which businesses are compatible with their technical approach. Pharmaceutical companies tend to build franchises in specific areas, and they’re likely to look for new medicine based on similar technology, says Litinski.
Next, it’s important to reach out to the right people.
“Find the champion in the research and development group, and the R&D group will take it to the business development group,” she says.
Soricimed already has champions in the form of research partners. The company outsources work to labs all over Canada, such as the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute, the BC Cancer Agency, the University Health Institute in Toronto, and National Research Council labs in Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. Plus they have additional partners around the globe. Not only does this build credibility, it also cuts down on massive overhead costs.
Litinski says choosing the right partners can have a huge impact on company’s dilemma. She suggested the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, which has a commercialization program.
“A lot of pharmaceutical industry people are affiliated with OICR, and it would lead to useful feedback and possibly even investments,” she says.
But, says Litinski, the data has to speak for itself.
Gunn says that won’t be a problem.
“We have world-class scientists with potential for global significance. Once we get people interested,” he says, “the location disappears.”