Biotechnology company, BGM Pharma has entered into a partnership with the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) to bring about a breakthrough in cancer diagnosis and treatment innovation, called GluCAB, to market.

A first for South Africa, the deal, estimated at R600 million, signifies a breakthrough in cancer diagnosis and treatment through collaboration between the government and the private sector.

The molecular compound being developed by NECSA and UCT will be brought to the market by BGM and will initially be used to seek, identify and treat solid mass tumours such as those found in breast and ovarian cancer.

In collaboration with a team at NECSA, Professor Iqbal Parker (Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine), Professor Roger Hunter (Department of Chemistry) and their PhD student, Cathryn Driver, developed a molecule for next-generation chemotherapy.

The molecule was designed to operate via a two-stage mechanism. The first component of the GluCAB molecule identifies cancerous cells due to their surface signatures and binds to them, distinguishing them from normal cells. Thereafter the second component provides therapeutic doses of ionising radiation to kill malignant tumour cells. This provides a focused treatment and minimises the impact on neighbouring healthy cells.

“Taking a molecule from doctoral thesis to clinical testing for the global market is a huge milestone for the country and indeed the local healthcare market,” said Co-founder and President of BGM Pharma, Martin Magwaza.

“Although we are a few years from market readiness, the initiation of clinical studies for a local technology is a significant development and represents progress in an area of healthcare that remains a major threat to people throughout the world,” continued Magwaza.

NECSA Executive Manager of New Business Development, Brian Mphahlele, says the GluCAB is set to significantly increase the market share of this class of medical treatment: therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals. Radiopharmaceuticals are unique medicinal formulations containing radioisotopes which are used in major clinical areas for diagnosis and/or therapy.

The term “theranostics” was coined to define an agent used for diagnosis via imaging followed by therapy and, according to Magwaza, it is fast becoming the norm in personalised medicine.

“The advantages of the new compound over conventional cancer diagnostics and therapeutic procedures are many and include improved diagnosis and treatment, reduced patient recovery time, increased survival rates, and significantly lower pharmacological toxicity and side effects,” said Mphahlele.

“This will not only have an impact on individual cancer patients and their families, but it promises to become a socio-economic driver in healthcare systems around the globe,” continued Mphahlele.

According to Stats SA, an estimated 41,647 deaths were reported in SA in 2014 while the World Health Organisation has predicted that the global burden of cancer will grow by 70% over the next two decades, with an estimated 22 million new cases and 13 million deaths each year by 2032.

“It is exciting to see UCT research being matured through the various development phases in partnership with industry and ultimately making an impact on society,” said UCT Deputy Vice Chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng.

“The Faculty of Health Sciences plays a vital role in responding to SA problems in the context of African and global health challenges by supporting training and research,” concluded Prof Phakeng.

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