Myeloma, or Multiple Myeloma, is a rare and fatal cancer of plasma cells. With 1500 people diagnosed each year in Australia and 100,000 people worldwide, it isn’t a well known cancer.
It is a bone marrow cancer that is referred to as Multiple Myeloma due to the multiple places in the body that bone marrow is found such as the ribs, pelvis, skull, shoulders and spine.
Multiple Myeloma makes up for around 1 per cent of all cancers, yet with a survival period of just three years from diagnosis, accounts for 2 per cent of cancer caused deaths. Only 12 per cent of patients who undergo extensive existing therapies survive five years. There is currently no cure, and Cancer Research UK suggests that treatments such as chemotherapy, steroids, bone marrow or stem cell transplant, biological therapies and bisphosphonates be used – most of which are painful and only temporarily treat the disease.
But that is set to change. Immune System Therapeutics (IST) is, according to its website, “a biotechnology company focused on the development of monoclonal antibodies for hematological malignancies and autoimmune diseases”. They developed a treatment, but also two types of drugs that could potentially cure this deadly cancer.
Their vision is simple – to cure, improve survival and eliminate the suffering of people affected by blood cancers and autoimmune diseases. The company was founded 10 years ago by students at the University of Technology Sydney and these students now form the core of the drug’s development team.
IST has identified two drug targets – Kappa Myeloma Antigen (KMA) and Lambda Myeloma Antigen (LMA) which specifically target abnormal B-cells that are found in blood cancers. Current treatments target healthy cells as well as cancerous cells, however as KMA and LMA are not present on healthy cells, these therapies are expected to have few side effects.
While it is a groundbreaking discovery, there are bigger implications still. It is thought the cure will be developed to cure autoimmune diseases, not just Multiple Myeloma. Lymphoma, Leukaemia, Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia (a non-Hodgkins Lymphoma) and even Multiple Sclerosis – all of these can potentially be cured. With ramifications this great, it is a sad reality that the company isn’t getting media attention nor funding to draw attention to what could be the next cure for cancer.
Rod Walker, Chairman of IST, spoke to The Newsroom about the challenges the company faces. “As chairman, the biggest challenge we have is finding the funded needed to be able to get the drug to market. To date, the science has been proved to be very effective. We’ve had two rounds of human testing that has been very effective, we’re just lacking the investments.”
As IST is a company, therefore not at the mercy of public donations, it is hard to get people to invest. Most people are not familiar with biotechs (companies concerned with biotechnology) and shy away from investing. Another reason is that the gestation period with these investments is 10-15 years and there’s no income for that time so there’s a fair degree of risk.
“The difference is IST has now found the scientific community is very positive the drug will be successful if we can get it to the market,” said Rod. The third human trial is set to be conducted jointly in America with European companies but is, “extraordinarily expensive… in the tens of millions of dollars” and the company has struggled to get the funding needed to launch this trial.
Anna Williamson of the Leukaemia Foundation told The Newsroom that the foundation has a National Research Program which has been funding seed grants, scholarships and fellowships, a couple of clinical trials and support for some national facilities and activities since 2005. Only 3 per cent of all funds have been specifically invested in Myeloma research. This is because the program is an “investigator driven scheme”.
“Our research investment strategy has been to support the best people with the best ideas rather than having a research priority which requires that our investment in individual blood cancers to reflect the burden of that cancer in Australian society,” Ms Williamson said.
There are other factors which contribute to disproportionate under and over funding for individual cancers, Ms Williamson said. She believes this is due to, “awareness, fashion in research, technological advances, social stigma, technical difficulty and ability to access tumour materials”.
The Myeloma Foundation of Australia would not comment on this specific type of drug, instead insisting there were many types of drugs being developed to cure the disease. A quick Google search would prove this was not the case and the innovative lead therapy IST-1097 as the company is calling it, is set to change the fate of blood cancer sufferers.
The scientific community has recognised the implications the development of this drug can have but public awareness is lacking. Rod said, “many many leading Myeloma experts worldwide have looked at IST and believe that our drug is really on to something.”
So it’s only a matter of time… – Benedicte Earl
Top photo from Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr photostream.