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A scientist who has spent more than 40 years successfully developing anti-cancer drugs is about to face one of his biggest challenges when he cycles 200 kilometres to raise funds for cancer research next weekend.
He is a member of the ‘Drug Runners’ team taking part in the epic two day cycling journey, organised by the Ride to Conquer Cancer that is fundraising for the Auckland Cancer Society.
Distinguished Professor Bill Denny from the University of Auckland’s Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) took up cycling again for the first time since he was a youngster especially for this ride and is training up to 60 kilometres a day.
This would be a huge challenge for most people, and no less for Professor Denny who is the oldest member of the team, but ready to give it a go.
“I’m intending to complete the 200km, but I’m sure the last 40km will be the hardest part ... I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he says.
Professor Denny leads the medicinal chemistry group at the ACSRC, (one of the world’s most productive academic cancer drug development groups), and has just received news of an internationally important award for his research that has had a ‘significant influence on medicinal chemistry’.
He is the first non-American recipient in more than 30 years, of the biennial Medicinal Chemistry Award, made by the world’s largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society. The award will be presented in May next year.
Professor Denny has authored more than 630 peer reviewed scientific papers and 80-odd published patents on medicinal chemistry and drug design, and has been closely involved in bringing more than 12 new anti-cancer drugs through the initial clinical trials and on to commercial testing.
During his time at the ACSRC, Professor Denny has been involved in the development of 11 cancer drugs to clinical trial. He notes that for every compound that reaches clinical trial, there are about ten others that don’t achieve this level of testing. And of those that do make it to clinical testing, only one in ten is likely to be finally effective.
“We develop a concept and invent a drug compound from scratch, and then develop screening systems to evaluate the new compound,” says Professor Denny. “The compound then undergoes clinical trials that determine whether there are any safety issues or side effects and establishes a safe maximum dose. From there it goes to stage two which is when a company takes the drug further for final testing, and if successful - patents and licensing permissions.”
Each new project is partnered with a commercial organisation – whether it is a UniServices start-up company or a big pharmaceutical or biotech company.
“The hallmark of our work here is that it is a multi-disciplinary collaboration. We have great engagement with industry because a lot of the drug development pathway takes place outside the lab, such as scaling up production and the clinical testing,” he says. “We can’t do all of that process in New Zealand, but we are increasing our ability to do all of the stage one testing in New Zealand.”
“Where a business is constrained by the restrictions that they have as a company, we [in ACSRC] have a much longer time to focus and also to take more risks than a company can,” says Professor Denny. “That’s a very important attribute of academic drug development, creating novel compounds from academic collaborations.”
“The highlight for me is that point when I have an idea for an effective drug and develop it into a compound, and find that it works in the fantastically complicated system of a mammalian model,” says Professor Denny. “It’s amazing that it can work within the complexity of a living system and be able to intervene in precisely the way that you envisage. When it does work out like that it’s both exciting and reassuring that you were not off-track.”
Meanwhile, Professor Denny is on-track with his training and will be out on his bike this week, doing his bit to raise funds for cancer research. He’s fit from weekly running, but is expecting this epic 200 kilometre ride will be a serious test.
“Surprisingly I found it easy to get back on the bike again with no problems. You don’t forget how to ride a bike. The only thing was this bike has 27 gears where my old bike just had the one gear,” he says.
Proceeds from the ride will ensure the sustainability of the ACSRC team’s work as they continue to develop new drugs that will directly impact the lives of thousands of people going through cancer treatment.
The full team list for the ACSRC Drug Runners includes captains Mark McKeage and Mark Grant, plus Marjan Askarian-Amiri, Bruce Baguley, Kendall Carlin, Emma Deeks, William Denny, Chris Guise, Daniel McManaway, Sarah McManaway, Adam Patterson, Shevan Silva, Jeff Smaill, Petr Tomek, Georgia Wilson, Ian Wilson, and William Wilson.
The ACSRC team’s fundraising page is here