Fame-ing of the Shrew

Ovarian cancer is known as the “silent killer”.  The absence of symptoms and early screening makes diagnosis difficult.  Most often, ovarian cancer is not detected until it reaches the advanced stages. By then the disease has already spread beyond the ovaries, making this form of cancer disproportionately deadly.

There’s hope on the horizon, however, thanks to two New Brunswick men and their determined efforts to move technology from the university laboratory to private industry. Their innovative research could lead to earlier, faster detection and better treatment of ovarian, breast and prostate cancers declares Paul Gunn, who together with Dr. Jack Stewart, are the co-founders of Soricimed Biopharma Inc., one of the most promising R&D firms in Atlantic Canada. Gunn summarizes Soricimed’s work this way: “Our diagnostic finds cancer, while our drug kills cancer.”

The disease-fighting capabilities of its technology are already attracting international attention from eager investors. In fact, four of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are talking to Soricimed about negotiating a co-development deal. The deal would take its suite of diagnostic and drug tools from clinical to human trials and eventually commercialization. “They came to us,” the company’s president and CEO adds. “It’s a perfect position to be in.”

Based in Moncton, Soricimed is a private, early stage drug development firm that employs nine people (its looking to add more this year), five of whom work out of its state-of-the art laboratory in Sackville, in collaboration with some of the top research institutions across the country. “We may not be big but we’re virtually huge,” Gunn says.

The start-up’s initial success shows, in Stewart’s words, that “you don’t have to be in a big centre to do leading-edge work”.  It also illustrates that scientific breakthroughs can, and often do, originate in the unlikeliest places. Dr. Frederick Banting, for example, discovered insulin studying the pancreas of diabetic dogs. In this case, Stewart may have found his miracle cancer treatment in the mouth of the North American shrew.

The unique story behind Soricimed dates back just 10 years when Stewart, out of curiosity, began to analyze the spit of the tiny carnivore.  Then a biochemistry professor at Mount Allison University, his goal was to solve a mystery that had puzzled scientists from the late 1800s through to the 1950s.

The shrew is one of only two venomous mammals in the animal kingdom, the other being the platypus.  The platypus uses its venom during the mating season to inflict pain on its opponent, whereas the shrew uses its venom to paralyze its prey. Earlier researchers had tried, but failed, to identify the paralytic agent in the animal’s venomous saliva as a possible painkiller for humans.

Stewart took up where they left off, with a distinct advantage: high-tech equipment capable of molecular analyses that his predecessors could scarcely have imagined.  He was able to zoom in on the organic compound (or peptide) that allows the animal to stun its prey with a single bite.

For several years, Stewart lured the mouse-like mammals with pepperoni and trapped them in his backyard. This continued until his eureka moment when he was finally able to establish the paralytic nature of their venom.  Stewart called the peptide ‘soricidin’ after the genus name for the northern short-tailed shrew: soricideae.

That was just the beginning. Stewart continued to delve deeper into his study of the mysterious chemical, sharing the long-held belief that it could be a pain suppressant. His analysis set off a series of even more remarkable finds. Over the course of his research at Mount A, he discovered that soricidin had both therapeutic and diagnostic properties, properties that could potentially detect and destroy cancer cells. Stewart knew he could be on to a medial miracle.  His only limitation (and it was a significant one) was money to further his research.

Enter Paul Gunn.

A results-driven financial executive, Gunn was in the audience at an investors forum when Stewart made his pitch for cash. He was intrigued. In fact, Gunn liked what he heard so much he provided the seed money to get their company off the ground. That was in 2005. Since then, there’s been a rapid succession of exciting discoveries and business advancements.

The year following the formation of their company, Gunn and Stewart welcomed Drs. Kenneth Keirstead and T. Toney Ilenchuk to the executive team, bringing with them considerable experience in the pharmaceutical field. “Early on, Jack and I realized that we had to get people on board who knew the pharmaceutical industry.”

In 2010, Soricimed used the $3-million it raised from 80 private investors as leverage to secure additional funding from the federal government. A $2.9-million contribution from the Atlantic Innovation Fund and a half million investment from the National Research Council is being used to carry out a $5.1-million project that focuses on the development of its diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer.

Once testing reaches the first phase of human trials, Soricimed’s internationally patented technology will be transferred to a large pharmaceutical to lead the project to the marketplace. “One of the things Jack and I established from the beginning was that we were never going to make the drug. We have been very focused on how far we were going to take it (the research).”

The financial backing Soricimed has received demonstrates the high level of confidence in its cancer management program, even though only two to three per cent of drugs make it to human testing.  The most enthusiastic, of course, are the company’s creators, as expressed by Gunn in announcing changes to Soricimed’s leadership, the opening of a corporate office in Moncton, as well as a new name and image in April of this year. “With this new rebranding and continued progress on the scientific front, our next phase of development is very encouraging,” he said. “We’re very confident that the work Soricimed is doing today will end up saving many lives in the future through the early detection and more efficient treatment of cancer.” Soricimed’s quick rise to prominence runs counter to the deliberate, go-slow approach Gunn and Stewart have taken in growing their business. “We kept a low profile for the first while,” Gunn admits. “We didn’t want to be one of those companies that over-promised and under-delivered.”

Now that the word is out about Soricimed’s novel cancer therapeutics and chronic pain treatments, the innovative start-up is grabbing headlines in industry and mainstream media around the globe, from high-end scientific journals to the blogs of influential advocacy groups.

Gunn says Soricimed is continually looking at new opportunities to expand. “There are a lot of discoveries sitting at universities. It takes a company like Soricimed to take them out (of the university lab) and develop them to the point where they attract larger (drug development) companies.”

It’s no surprise that Gunn is “extremely happy” with the decision he made five years ago to invest in Stewart’s research. Consider that the estimated value of Sorcimed’s diagnostic market alone exceeds $1.1-billion annually. And that’s just one of four revenue streams its current cancer management platform offers, the others being its oncology and pain therapeutics and drug delivery system.  Preliminary studies show that Soricimed’s products are very effective in locating tumours (in mere hours) and reducing their size.

For Gunn and Stewart, and thousands of cancer patients everywhere, the research represents much more than dollars. “I’m not only in it for the money,” Gunn says. “I want to be associated with a new, novel technology.” Though this technology has many regulatory hurdles to leap before it reaches pharmacies and hospitals, Gunn is optimistic about Soricimed’s future. “Even five years from now, I would like to think our drug was into late stage human clinical trials and that our diagnostic was in widespread use.”

If his prediction holds true, it will mean that women who hear their doctors say the dreaded words “ovarian cancer” will face a much better prognosis than they do today. And for that, they can credit Stewart and Gunn, who never lost faith in the potential cure of a natural chemical, found in the over tooth of a small, furry animal.

Rayanne Brennan
About Rayanne Brennan

Rayanne Brennan has over two decades experience in print journalism, corporate communications and government relations. She managed the publication of three weekly newspapers and was a bureau chief for one of New Brunswick’s leading dailies. Her work as a freelance photojournalist has been widely published in international, national and regional publications. She makes her home in Moncton, NB and operates an independent communications consultancy and editorial services firm – Brennan Communications.

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