Building a new cancer diagnostic and drug development company in small-town New Brunswick

Developing a cancer treatment

September 30, 2011— Sackville (New-Brunswick)

Soricimed Biopharma Inc.

Soricimed Biopharma Inc. is a classic story of academic research spinning successfully into private industry with the help of the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP).

It all began in 2000 with Mount Allison University Professor Jack Stewart’s discovery of a peptide—derived from the venom of the northern short-tailed shrew—that showed potential to treat pain and to diagnose and fight cancer. He named the peptide soricidin, and continued to study it, identifying, purifying and synthesizing it in his research lab. Today, Soricimed is a drug development corporation with 10 employees and offices in both Sackville and Moncton, New Brunswick.

NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) Tim Jackson has been involved with Soricimed since its earliest days, and has watched the company grow from a research project into an enterprise that has so far attracted a total of $7.5 million in public and private financing.

Soricimed’s lab and staff working

Soricimed’s lab and staff working

Broad involvement by NRC-IRAP

One of Jackson’s most significant contributions to Soricimed’s development was putting its founders in touch with Ken Keirstead, a former big-pharma senior executive who had retired to New Brunswick. At that point, Dr. Stewart had already brought Paul Gunn, then an IT executive with a successful track record in angel fundraising, on board as a partner. Jackson saw the need for seasoned pharmaceutical expertise to guide the fledgling company’s drug development efforts, so he introduced Soricimed to Keirstead, who established a plan to evaluate soricidin’s potential, steered the company through its next growth phrase, and ultimately became the firm’s first president and CEO.

Think global, stay local

A key challenge for this firm was its resistance to leaving Sackville, NB. The partners wanted to build a company that would offer local university and college graduates the chance to work and gain experience without having to leave the region. Since the Canadian pharmaceutical sector and its investors are primarily located in the country’s biggest cities, attracting investors’ interest while remaining in Sackville was difficult. Financial assistance from NRC-IRAP was essential, both in giving the firm the early momentum it needed and in attracting additional sources of financing.

In addition to connecting the founding partners with Keirstead, Jackson provided technical support for Soricimed’s financing applications to the province of New Brunswick and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA). He also introduced the firm to the various NRC institutes that it now uses as subcontractors.

Tim and NRC-IRAP were very helpful in bringing the technology out of the university and into the company. Tim was key in attracting senior personnel who had the experience we lacked.

Paul Gunn
President and CEO of Soricimed

Encouraging results

Research now underway at Soricimed could lead to much earlier detection of ovarian, prostate and breast cancers, as well as more effective cancer treatments. In tests comparing soricidin with existing cancer treatments, soricidin proved more effective at killing cancer cells, and when used in combination with existing therapies, soricidin significantly improved outcomes.

These are highly encouraging results. Meanwhile, the firm’s collaboration with NRC-IRAP has already yielded some great successes:

  • The regulatory approval process is underway now for diagnostic kits that will detect early-stage ovarian cancer, and the kits may be on the market in 12-18 months.
  • Human trials for the firm’s cancer treatment drug will begin this summer, and if clinical trial findings reflect those of the animal studies already done, the results could be groundbreaking.
  • This year Soricimed will also turn some of its attention to the use of shrew venom in pain management—another potential source of revenue.

Being involved with the company from the very beginning, says Jackson, has been extremely rewarding. “When somebody you’ve been advising is able to leave the university and start a thriving business, you know you’ve done something right. In this case, NRC-IRAP has made a big difference not just for one researcher or one company, but potentially for all Canadians.”

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