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Drug researchers turn to crowdfunding as ‘lean times call for creative measures’

posted Jul 7, 2014, 12:10 AM by Siamak Ebarhimi
Dmitri Khartidi and his young colleagues in Montreal think they have an idea that could transform the power of cancer treatment.

It’s a test to pinpoint the exact nature of a tumour, allowing doctors to precisely tailor therapy to each malignancy. They have access to a university lab, but convincing tight-fisted government agencies or industry to pay for their research is another question entirely.

So the scientists are harnessing an Internet-age tactic and taking their appeal to the people, launching a crowdfunding campaign they hope will raise seed money to kickstart the project.

They are part of a surprising trend in the usually staid world of medical science, as scores of researchers around the world turn to web sites with names like Indiegogo to pitch their work to ordinary people.CrowdFunding advertizing

One of the most successful drummed up $3.6-million to revive dormant research into a cancer-eating virus. Another raised over $300,000 for a stem-cell process that could repair the brains of MS patients.CrowdFunding marketing

“Cancer is a problem for everybody,” Mr. Khartidi, a biochemistry doctoral student at McGill University, said about his group’s campaign. “The general public should be aware of the problem but they should also be aware of the solutions we are offering. And there should be an option for the general public to contribute to it.”

A just-published Canadian study identified more than 100 crowdfunding campaigns that have helped get novel research projects off the ground. The web-based appeals rarely generate huge sums — the average was $46,000. But they could be the answer for “high risk, high reward” scientific endeavours that governments and pharmaceutical companies consider too speculative, the authors say.Kickstarter Marketing

If the scientists can use the crowdfunding to show they have something promising, that in turn might convince big funders to step in, suggested the University of British Columbia health-policy researchers.

“Many of them will fail, but some might actually be big breakthroughs,” said Nick Dragojlovic, co-author of the study in the journal Drug Discovery Today. “That’s the hope, that it will allow a lot more people to run these early-stage projects.”Indiegogo Marketing

The UBC paper looked at campaigns dedicated to research on cancer and rare-disease drugs, with donors giving an average of $50 to $186 each. Some appeared on general-interest sites such as Indiegogo, while others were on new crowdfunding portals devoted to medical science, like Cure Cancer Starter and Experiment.

Researchers typically present their work in easy-to-understand bites, accompanied by video, compelling images and graphics explaining how the money would be spent.

A team at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Ontario’s MaRS Innovation raised over $50,000 last year for WaveCheck, an ultrasound device wedded with innovative software that can show early on whether chemotherapy is working — saving valuable time if a different treatment approach is needed.crowdfunding websites

‘The odds of actually winning a grant application? You’d do better if you were just tossing a coin’crowdfunding marketing

The group had hoped to generate twice that amount to fund a clinical trial of the technology, but the crowdfunding exercise helped convince an Ontario research agency to kick in $100,000, said Fazila Seker, WaveCheck business-development manager.

Even with a good idea and solid credentials, medical scientists now face a daunting task getting money from government organizations with limited budgets. Success rates for requests to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, for instance, are less than 20%, said Ms. Seker.crowdfunding advertising

“The odds of actually winning a grant application? You’d do better if you were just tossing a coin,” she said. “It’s very lean times, and lean times call for creative measures.”

A British-run campaign focused on resurrecting promising research in Sweden on a genetically altered, cancer-attacking virus. The discovery was not patented, so Big Pharma was not interested in investing. Almost 4,000 crowdfunding donors, though, contributed close to $200,000. Then an American oil tycoon with the disease added another $2.5-million, allowing a trial of the virus to move ahead.indiegogo marketing

Some of the campaigns are a little more edgy. A U.S. researcher on Experiment wants to raise $2,140 for a study on using women’s sweat — collected from donated scrunchies — to naturally boost men’s testosterone levels.

But why would complete strangers agree to fund any speculative research advertised on a web site? It could be that people are drawn to specific projects with little or no overhead costs, as opposed to donating to health charities that will devote at least some of their money to administration, said Mr. Dragojlovic.kickstarter marketing

Mr. Kharitidi and colleagues, including Vincent Menard, a pharmaceutical-research PhD, have raised just $555 so far, but hope the process will at least raise public awareness about their work.kickstarter project

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By David Khorram