Singapore-based biotech company conducting clinical trials for new oral cancer drugs

AUM Biosciences co-founders Harish Dave (left) and Vishal Doshi PHOTO: VISHAL DOSHI

SINGAPORE - A biotechnology company based in Singapore has started clinical trials for a new oral cancer drug which they said could lead to cheaper and more targeted treatment of the disease.

AUM Biosciences hopes its treatment option would also allow for malignancies, which cannot be completely eradicated, to be managed like other chronic ailments, with pills taken on a regular basis.

The firm said traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy are unable to differentiate normal cells and cancer cells, but targeted drugs can engage cancer cells specifically.

"The prior approach was akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall, hope something stuck, and calling that our solution to that cancer.

"The current paradigm is to understand the biology of the cancer, which means we are slicing and dicing cancer into a thousand plus orphan indications," said Dr Harish Dave, chief medical officer and co-founder of AUM Biosciences.

The firm said this small-molecule targeted cancer therapy approach could lead to fewer negative side effects, such as fatigue and anaemia, or low red blood cell count.

Mr Vishal Doshi, its chief executive, said the firm decided on oral medication as it will allow patients to pause consumption for a short time whenever there are significant negative effects.

This would likely result in increased patient compliance for treatment, he added.

"For example, Covid-19 vaccination is done through vaccination and people do feel a bit scared. With oral medication, the patient's journey becomes easier," said Mr Doshi, who is also a registered pharmacist.

The company acquires drugs from biotech companies or research institutes such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and develops them into cancer medication that is safe to be commercialised.

Singapore has several oncology drugs under development. AUM Biosciences successfully acquired oncology drug ETC-206 in 2018 and is currently developing it as a small-molecule oral cancer drug to treat colorectal cancer. 

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Singapore, with 16 people dying each day from the disease. In 2019, the country spent $375 million on cancer drugs, a quarter of the Republic's drug spending.

Aside from potentially having fewer side effects, Mr Doshi said, small-molecule cancer drugs could be developed for less money than common treatments for cancer.

This would translate into lower treatment costs for patients.

Last October, the company raised $36.8 million in seed funding.

AUM Biosciences has started clinical trials for different oral drugs to treat colorectal cancer, the most common cancer among men, and breast cancer.

The company said it is expecting breakthroughs and announcements in the next few months.

The pills can be taken as a standalone treatment or alongside other treatment options, such as chemotherapy, said Mr Doshi.

"If we could make a difference in these cancers, we could help patients live longer," he said.

Professor Lee Soo Chin, head and senior consultant of the department of haematology-oncology at the National University Cancer Institute, said that small-molecule targeted cancer drugs have been in the market for 15 to 20 years.

These drugs target different types of cancers specifically, she added.

"The advantage of targeted therapy compared to conventional chemotherapy is that they are more specific against cancer cells and generally have fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy that cause more side effects on normal cells," said Prof Lee.

Dr Polly Chen, a principal investigator at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore said most small-molecule targeted cancer drugs are orally administered.

Dr Chen, who is also an associate professor of the Department of Anatomy at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said: "The oral route is convenient, non-invasive and pain-free; the lives of busier Singaporeans will be minimally affected."

This article has been updated for clarity. 

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