Drug researchers turn to crowdfunding as ‘lean times call for creative measures’

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National Post | Tom Blackwell | July 3, 2014

Crowdfunding McGill UniversityDmitri Khartidi and his young colleagues in Montreal think they have an idea that could transform the power of cancer treatment.

It’s a test to pinpoint the exact nature of a tumour, allowing doctors to precisely tailor therapy to each malignancy. They have access to a university lab, but convincing tight-fisted government agencies or industry to pay for their research is another question entirely.

So the scientists are harnessing an Internet-age tactic and taking their appeal to the people, launching a crowdfunding campaign they hope will raise seed money to kickstart the project.

They are part of a surprising trend in the usually staid world of medical science, as scores of researchers around the world turn to web sites with names like Indiegogo to pitch their work to ordinary people.

One of the most successful drummed up $3.6-million to revive dormant research into a cancer-eating virus. Another raised over $300,000 for a stem-cell process that could repair the brains of MS patients.

“Cancer is a problem for everybody,” Mr. Khartidi, a biochemistry doctoral student at McGill University, said about his group’s campaign. “The general public should be aware of the problem but they should also be aware of the solutions we are offering. And there should be an option for the general public to contribute to it.”

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A just-published Canadian study identified more than 100 crowdfunding campaigns that have helped get novel research projects off the ground. The web-based appeals rarely generate huge sums — the average was $46,000. But they could be the answer for “high risk, high reward” scientific endeavours that governments and pharmaceutical companies consider too speculative, the authors say.

If the scientists can use the crowdfunding to show they have something promising, that in turn might convince big funders to step in, suggested the University of British Columbia health-policy researchers.

“Many of them will fail, but some might actually be big breakthroughs,” said Nick Dragojlovic, co-author of the study in the journal Drug Discovery Today. “That’s the hope, that it will allow a lot more people to run these early-stage projects.”

The UBC paper looked at campaigns dedicated to research on cancer and rare-disease drugs, with donors giving an average of $50 to $186 each. Some appeared on general-interest sites such as Indiegogo, while others were on new crowdfunding portals devoted to medical science, like Cure Cancer Starter and Experiment.

Researchers typically present their work in easy-to-understand bites, accompanied by video, compelling images and graphics explaining how the money would be spent.

A team at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Ontario’s MaRS Innovation raised over $50,000 last year for WaveCheck, an ultrasound device wedded with innovative software that can show early on whether chemotherapy is working — saving valuable time if a different treatment approach is needed.

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