An anti-malaria drug that costs 70p a day is to be given to cancer patients in one of the UK’s first crowdfunded drug trials.
Doctors at St George’s hospital, in Tooting, have secured £50,000 to see if promising results from a small study can be repeated in a larger trial involving 140 patients.
More than 270 people, including patients, support groups and many backers unknown to the team, pledged cash to allow them to continue to investigate the benefits of “repurposing” the malaria drug Artesunate as a treatment for colorectal cancer.
Doctors said “donations poured in from across the world” when they used social media to promote the appeal via the Futsci crowdfunding platform for medical research.
They said it showed how doctors and the public could work together to find quick solutions to cancer. Conventional methods of funding research can involve laborious applications to quangos and charities and take years to produce results.
Dr Yolanda Augustin, clinical research fellow in oncology at St George’s, said Artesunate appeared to be a “potent killer” of microscopic cancer cells that spread away from the main tumour.
By giving it to patients for two weeks prior to surgery, it helped to “disinfect” the body and reduce the chances of cancerous cells spreading as a result of the operation.
Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in England, with 33,765 cases registered in 2013. Less than 60 per cent of patients survive for five years.
Devinder Kumar, professor of colorectal surgery at St George’s, said: “Repurposing Artesunate could change the way bowel cancer is treated in the future and make a significant difference to the lives of millions of sufferers.”
An initial trial of 23 patients found cancer recurred in one person who had received the treatment, compared to six who were given a placebo. The new trials will recruit patients from St George’s and possibly hospitals in Surrey and Essex.
Artesunate belongs to the family of drugs derived from traditional Chinese medicine, whose use as an anti-malarial was discovered in the 1970s by Tu Youyou, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine.
Pan Pantziarka, a campaigner and scientist with the Anticancer Fund, said the lack of commercial funding was a “road block” to repurposing drugs.
He said: “This trial is a chance to prove that Artesunate can stop bowel cancer recurring after surgery, but it could also highlight a funding solution that we can use for other diseases.”
Gary Douch started the Bowel Disease UK charity from his hospital bed whilst recovering from bowel surgery. It raised the money to fund the first three years of research at St George’s.
He said: “We are delighted to be involved in such a ground breaking project. BDUK was specifically setup to fund research and now we have the opportunity to be part of something quite unique and life changing.”