Singapore-made cancer drug enters clinical trials

(From left) Professor David Virshup, director of the Programme in Cancer and Stem Cell Biology at Duke-NUS, and Professor Alex Matter, chief executive of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre.
(From left) Professor David Virshup, director of the Programme in Cancer and Stem Cell Biology at Duke-NUS, and Professor Alex Matter, chief executive of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

SINGAPORE - A new cancer drug, which could offer hope to hundreds of patients each year suffering from a range of cancers - pancreatic, colon and stomach - is being developed by Singapore researchers ; and it has entered clinical trials here.

Developed by the Experimental Therapeutic Centre (ETC) and Drug Discovery and Development (D3) units at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the drug homes in on proteins that cause excessive cell growth when they go rogue, leading to cancers.

These cancers are linked to a group of cell signalling pathways known as Wnt signalling, that have been identified to promote cancer growth.

ETC-159, as the drug is now called, works to inhibit these pathways, suppressing cancer proliferation and preventing cancer progression.

It is being tested at the National Cancer Centre Singapore and the National University Hospital, and if successful, could emerge as the country's first cancer blockbuster. Trial sites in the United States will open as clinical trials progress.

The Phase 1 clinical trial will evaluate the safety and tolerability of ETC-159 in advanced solid tumours of up to 58 patients. The first patient was dosed on June 18.

It is the first publicly-funded drug candidate discovered and developed in Singapore to advance into first-in-human trials.

Overall, cancer is the leading cause of death in Singapore. In 2014, 13,416 people were diagnosed with it here.

Prof David Virshup, director of the Programme in Cancer and Stem Cell Biology at Duke-NUS and co-lead scientist of the research on the drug, said: "As the drug candidate provides a targeted cancer therapy, it could potentially minimise side effects and make cancer treatments more bearable for patients."

Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of A*Star's Biomedical Research Council, said the breakthrough, which closely follows local company MerLion Pharmaceuticals' recent success in obtaining the Food and Drug Administration's approval for one of its drugs, marks an inflection point in Singapore's biomedical sciences initiative.

"Despite the protracted process of drug discovery and development, I am confident that we will see more locally developed drugs in the pipeline being tested and implemented," he said.