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SCIENTISTS from across the research community united with fundraisers in Newcastle to celebrate the discovery of the life-extending ‘Geordie cancer drug’, ahead of its possible European licensing.

Officially known as rucaparib (Rubraca®) the drug offers a lifeline to women with advanced ovarian cancer, who have received two or more prior chemotherapies and whose tumours have a BRCA gene mutation.

The drug is a result of 30 years research funded by Cancer Research UK in collaboration with Newcastle University and unwavering support from the charity’s fundraisers and researchers at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research.

Rucaparib is one of an exciting new group of drugs known as PARP inhibitors that specifically exploit a defect found only in the cancer cells, allowing the tumour to be targeted with less harm to normal tissues than can be caused by less targeted treatments like chemotherapy.

The project that led to its discovery was among the first of the Newcastle Cancer Drug Discovery Group that started at Newcastle University, involving the Northern Institute for Cancer Research and a team of Cancer Research UK-funded scientists.

Rucaparib went into phase 1 trials in 2003, with Professor Ruth Plummer, (Professor of Experimental Cancer Medicine at Newcastle University and Director of the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care), writing the prescription for the first patient in the world to be treated with the drug and the first ever cancer patient to be treated by a PARP inhibitor.

Professor Plummer, who leads the Newcastle Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre and also the CRUK Newcastle Cancer Centre, said: “It was always clear we had a drug that did something and the licencing of rucaparib will offer new hope to women with advanced ovarian cancer and has the potential to save the lives of cancer patients all over the world. We have some patients from the first trials, before its use for ovarian cancer whose scans are currently clear and have been for some years now. The patient from our first trial doesn’t even come to clinic now – he’s been discharged, so there is potential for it to help many people, not just those with ovarian cancer.”

During its discovery rucaparib stimulated high levels of commercial interest and is now being developed and marketed by Clovis Oncology. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States approved rucaparib for use in December 2016, having previously identified it as a breakthrough drug.

Approval by the European Medicines Agency is expected this year and if the drug is then approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Scottish Medicines Consortium, doctors would be able to start using the drug to treat patients that meet the criteria.

To celebrate the drug discovery and showcase the successful collaboration between Cancer Research UK fundraisers and researchers joined together at a celebration event at the Great North Museum on Monday 5 February.

The morning session was attended by fundraisers from across the region, many of whom have closely followed the development of rucaparib and directly supported its work. One such committee is the Teesdale branch of Cancer Research UK whose named scientist was Professor Herbie Newell, one of the original team working on PARP, until his retirement in 2016.

Research Engagement Manager for Cancer Research UK Amy Fawcett said: “None of this would have been possible without the generous support of Cancer Research UK fundraisers and volunteers and we were delighted to welcome both researchers and fundraisers to this event, the first of its kind.”

As part of the morning session researchers explained how the drug was discovered and the impact it will have for patients.

There was also the opportunity to see ‘Inhibitor’, an incredible audio visual installation created by artist Ed Carter, which represents healthy and cancerous cells undergoing PARP Inhibition treatment.

The piece features a spectacular series of fluorescent microscopy images accompanied by a brass quintet melody representing the structure of PARP protein itself.

Amy Fawcett, added: “Inhibitor brings the science behind PARP inhibitors to life in a way which is truly engaging and innovative. This was a great opportunity for us to be able to showcase the research that takes place here in Newcastle and give our supporters the opportunity to learn more about our work.”

The afternoon session gave researchers and medical professionals from Newcastle the opportunity to reflect on the science behind the development in more detail.

Experts from the research community that have helped get rucaparib to this stage presented at the event. Guest speakers included Professor Newell, Emeritus Professor of Cancer Therapeutics at Newcastle University. He was Director of Translational Research at Cancer Research UK from 2006 to 2009 and was part of the multi-disciplinary team that discovered and developed PARP inhibitors. The team which included Professors Hilary Calvert, Nicola Curtin, Barbara Durkacz, Bernard Golding, Roger Griffin and Ruth Plummer were awarded the inaugural Cancer Research UK Translational Team prize for this work.

Professor Plummer added: “It has been very exciting and rewarding to see our original vision come to fruition through the brilliant and dedicated drug discovery unit team, working closely with several fundamental research groups – teamwork, talent and dedication is the key, all the way down the line.

“Drug discovery is an immensely complex endeavour involving teams of scientists and patients on the clinical trials working together, and in this case fundraisers raising vital funds. This event was designed to celebrate the work, but also to show how drug discovery connects academic innovation to industry with the long-view aim of providing new medicines for patients.”

Susan Ross: a patient’s perspective on rucaparib
Susan Ross from Whitley Bay in Tyne and Wear was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer with a BRCA gene mutation 10 years ago. Here Susan explains her experience of being part of a clinical trial of rucaparib (Rubraca®) at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care in Newcastle.

“Early in 2015 I was told the ovarian cancer had returned and unfortunately an operation was not possible. I was facing the prospect of having chemotherapy again. Previously I had had three rounds of chemotherapy as well as four operations, so knowing what treatment was going to entail, my heart sank. I thought ‘Can I go through this again?’ and ‘Do I really want to go through this again?’

“My consultant organised a BRCA gene mutation test, which showed I was a BRCA2 mutation carrier. I was then offered the opportunity to go on a clinical trial of this new treatment rucaparib, and I grabbed it with both hands.

“My care is overseen by Dr Yvette Drew, and I attend the unit every three weeks to be monitored, and discuss any worries with the nurses and doctors. I’ve been taking rucaparib as part of this trial since December 2015 and it’s the best I’ve felt in 10 years, both physically and mentally. With the help and support of all the staff, it feels like I’ve got my life back.

“Being part of a clinical trial means I’m monitored very closely. I am so thankful for all those who have been involved in the development of rucaparib and for making this clinical trial possible. Being part of a clinical trial is an opportunity to help make a difference, help cancer patients in the future and hopefully find a cure for this awful disease. I’d do it again in an instant.”

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