First made-in-Singapore cancer drug enters clinical testing

Prof David Virshup
Prof David Virshup

Biomedical science in Singapore got a boost this year when the first made-in-Singapore cancer drug entered clinical trials. The drug candidate, ETC-159, is the first publicly funded drug candidate discovered and developed in Singapore to advance into first-in-human trials.

ETC-159 was discovered and developed through a collaboration between the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) and Drug Discovery and Development unit, and Duke-NUS. The drug was based on the research by Professor David Virshup, Director of the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme at Duke-NUS.

Worldwide, cancer causes 8.2 million deaths annually, while in Singapore cancer is the leading cause of death – accounting for close to 30 per cent of all deaths in 2014. Some top cancers in Singapore, such as colorectal, ovarian and pancreatic cancers, are linked to a group of cell signalling pathways known as Wnt signalling. ETC-159 – as an inhibitor of these pathways – can potentially suppress and prevent the growth of a subset of these cancers.

“ETC-159 may make cancer treatment more tolerable,” said Dr Virshup. “As the drug candidate provides a targeted cancer therapy, it could potentially minimise side effects. This is a major milestone that was made possible by Singapore’s ongoing investment in basic and translational biomedical research to address unmet medical needs. It is fitting that Singaporeans might be the first to benefit from this Singapore-developed drug.”

Professor Ranga Krishnan, Chairman of the National Medical Research Council, Singapore and former Duke-NUS Dean, applauded the collaborative effort between multiple distinct organisations.

“The first dosing of a drug developed by A*STAR based on a scientific discovery by Duke-NUS researchers, is an example of the terrific and exciting progress that can be made when different entities come together to work on a common problem,” said Dr Krishnan. “This will lead to developing new treatments that can benefit patients in Singapore and beyond.”

The first two sites for the trial are the National Cancer Centre Singapore and the National University Hospital Singapore, Singapore. Trial sites in the United States will be opened as the trial progresses.