CURING cancer is one of those personal goals right up there with world peace, but one girl from Bolivia is making it happen.
Dr Jennifer MacDiarmid, co-founder of the company EngeneIC which is working to make cancer curable, was born in Tenterfield Hospital, and lived on a sheep property at Bolivia until she was seven.
“I remember it very happily,” Dr MacDiarmid says. “It was a big property to run around on.
“I remember it being very cold and my dad bringing the lambs just born up to the house to keep them warm.”
The family moved to Sydney but returned regularly to visit relatives in Tenterfield.
“I think we moved for two reasons,” she recalls. “My mother was a city girl, although she loved it up there, and Dad was injured in New Guinea in the war and really couldn’t keep up the physical work required for the property.”
Dr MacDiarmid became a research scientist and worked for the CSIRO.
It was while she was there, working alongside principal research scientist Dr Himanshu Brahmbhatt that a colleague, a non-smoker “with no vices as far as I could see” became ill with lung cancer.
“Then the head of CSIRO developed cancer and it made Dr Brahmbhatt and I start thinking about what we were doing in CSIRO,” she says.
“All these people were keeling over from cancer.”
Dr MacDiarmid and Dr Brahmbhatt formed EngeneIC in 2001. The company’s mission is to change the perception of cancer from life threatening to curable.
“We aim to revolutionise the treatment of cancer through the targeted delivery of therapeutic agents directly to cancer cells,” EngeneIC’s website reads.
“The proprietary EnGeneIC Delivery Vehicle (EDV) can be used as a platform for the creation of tailor-made cancer therapies, dramatically minimising the side effects commonly associated with chemotherapy and improving outcomes for patients.”
In the 11 years since they started, the two doctors and their team have worked exhaustively to develop EDV technology.
Dr MacDiarmid says the small particles had the potential to target treatment directly to tumours, combine cancer therapies, overcome drug resistance and was a gentler therapy than the treatments available.
“There are lots of people trying to develop synthetic particles,” she says. “But the thing about this [EDV technology] is it is a natural particle.
“It has got a strong cell membrane and once packaged, it doesn’t leak.
“A lot of them [synthetic particles] go to the liver and gut and cause side effects and disease.”
The technology has been tested on 17 dogs with brain cancer.
“We got remarkable results,” Dr MacDiarmid says. “We increased their life span and even got remission which never happens in brain cancer.”
There have also been human trials to prove the safety of EDV technology.
“The next cab off the rank is a brain cancer trial in Melbourne and Sydney,” Dr MacDiarmid says.
“We will have patients who have run out of treatment options.”
She says while she would love to make the technology available to people in the earlier stages of brain cancer, this is the way the regulatory system works.
The journey has not been an easy one. While EngeneIC’s work has attracted attention and has featured on ABC TV’s Australian Story, Dr MacDiarmid says developing new technology is an expensive business.
“It is a long haul,” she says. “It’s a black hole for money.”
The brain cancer trial alone will cost about $2.5 million, and Dr MacDiarmid says the past 11 years have not held much spare time for her or Dr Brahmbhatt.
“I have a husband who is fantastic and who is also very committed to what I am doing,” she says. “He gives me every support possible.”
The company is now at a stage where it is looking to “buddy up” with a large pharmaceutical company.
“The big pharmaceuticals have the muscle to get through,” she says. “We need to get this out there and into people.”
Dr MacDiarmid says she is very much looking forward to a time when the technology is in use.
“We do believe this is a very important therapy,” she says.
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