Despite many scientific breakthroughs over the years, cancer remains a deadly disease, and treatments are often limited in their scope. But cancer research is improving and one of the most promising areas is in biological therapy, or biotherapy, where a €100 million loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) with financial backing from the European Union is helping find out how to manage molecules to kill cancer cells while sparing their healthy neighbours.
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The project is being managed by Pierre Fabre, a French pharmaceutical group. Part of Pierre Fabre’s €220 million medical research programme focuses primarily on oncology, the study and treatment of cancer. It has a particular interest in the way biotherapy can improve or restore the ability of the immune system to fight cancer and other diseases.
Many current cancer treatments like radiotherapy and chemotherapy take an indiscriminate approach that kills surrounding cells, weakening the patient. Researchers at Pierre Fabre hope that biotherapy could produce a sharper tool, avoiding some of the debilitating side effects.
“In this area, we are specifically looking at immuno-conjugates,” says Marc Alias, Head of Pierre Fabre Corporate Communication. “These molecules combine a protein of biological origin with a cytotoxic agent – an agent that is toxic to cells - of synthetic or natural origin. They make it possible to direct active substances to the very heart of a tumour cell, without affecting healthy cells,” explains Alias.
Alias says Pierre Fabre’s research teams already have expertise in discovering, developing and evaluating these molecules. The teams include researchers dealing with biotherapeutics at Saint-Julien-en-Genevois, near Lyon; studying cytotoxic agents at the Toulouse Oncopole R&D Centre; and chemical experts based in the cancer-research cluster around Toulouse.
But the R&D efforts go beyond cancer research. Pierre Fabre which devotes over around 20% of its medicines turnover to research and development, is aiming to discover new natural, chemical and biological molecules to treat disorders in other therapeutic fields.
In neuropsychiatry, the treatment of mental disorders, the group is developing innovative molecules for psychiatric illnesses such as severe depression or schizophrenia and for chronic pain. And in dermatology, or skin treatments, the group is researching cures for skin-specific carcinogenic tumours.
Pierre Fabre’s R&D Projects supported by an EIB loan under the Risk Sharing Finance Facility (RSFF), a joint European Commission-EIB programme for RDI projects, have already resulted in two key submissions for official authorisation of new treatments.The first, in October 2012 to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, addresses severe depression. The second, in March 2013 to the European Medicines Agency (EMA), is for infantile haemangioma, a benign tumour that develops in the first weeks of life and affects 10% of babies, sometimes leading to severe functional or aesthetic repercussions. Pierre Fabre has also made steady progress with a monoclonal antibody (known as anti-CXCR4) in cancer tumours, and with an inhibitor of so-called D3 receptors in schizophrenic disorders.
Alias says the EIB loan translates directly into citizen needs as it focuses Pierre Fabre’s research efforts on therapeutic areas where patient needs remain unsatisfied. “This is obviously the case for oncology and neuropsychiatry, but also for dermatology,” he says. “It reflects the European Union’s commitment to supporting innovation and pharmaceutical research on one hand and promoting the competitiveness of Europe’s regions on the other,” Alias concludes.