Millions to go as doctor pursues cancer cure (The Journal Record)

Dr. Courtney Houchen is a step closer to advancing a treatment for pancreatic cancer. The chief medical adviser and co-founder of COARE Biotechnology received in July a $2 million grant from the Small Business Innovation Research program.

He’s still years away from, and several million dollars short of, producing a drug that could stop the deadly disease. Each scientific milestone helps get him closer to testing safety and efficacy. Once he can show his company’s technology is safe for humans, he’s more likely to attract interest from a major pharmaceutical company.

The most recent grant shows his research is promising. Houchen got a phase II grant from the SBIR program, which he received because he achieved scientific milestones from a phase I grant from the agency.

Houchen, the gastroenterology chief of medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, needs a large drug company to be interested in his treatment to get it to patients. It would cost $20 million or more to commercialize the drug if it’s approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the worst solid-tumor cancers because it’s usually diagnosed late in the illness after it has spread through a patient’s body. Survival rates are about 6 percent five years after one is diagnosed. Most patients die within six months of diagnosis.

“It’s a very tough disease,” Houchen said. “Many have tried to develop treatments and have been met with limited success.”

His treatment is an antibody that targets a protein that’s the origin cell for colon cancer and pancreatic cancer. His lab is developing drugs that would stop the protein from working, thereby inhibiting the tumor’s progression. The SBIR grant will help Houchen’s company and his lab at OUHSC conduct additional tests to show the antibody effectively can stop tumor growth.

He estimated that he’s about three years from the first phase of human clinical trials and would need about $7 million more to continue his research. Human drug studies usually take three to five years, and if successful, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could then approve the treatment. The FDA-approval process can also take several years.

Most large drug companies aren’t interested in a new drug until it’s been proven safe for humans.

“That’s why we’re so grateful for the NIH to provide funding to develop companies, because pharmaceutical companies don’t really invest in anyone at this early stage,” Houchen said.

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