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Is crowd-sourced funding the future of cancer research? Business commentator Jason Hesse investigates.

Monday 3rd March

The past five years have been unrelentingly tough for cancer charities, which have struggled to maintain fundraising levels as people are forced to cut back on donating through the economic downturn.

The impact on cancer research, in the meantime, has thankfully been minimal. Cancer Research UK (CRUK), Britain’s largest cancer charity, has managed to keep funding levels stable, spending more than £350m in the last 12 months alone – representing 50 percent of all cancer research funding in the UK.

“Without a doubt, we’ve had to innovate and come up with new, exciting propositions,” explains Nick Grant, strategy director at CRUK. “But we’re hopeful that, with the economic recovery underway, we’ll continue to grow and increase the amount of research we can fund.”

Despite the significant amounts raised by cancer charities, there is still not enough money to fund all of the research, even when it is very promising. For many, this has meant the end of the road for their projects, but for Professor Magnus Essand from Uppsala University in Sweden, a new, innovative way of raising funds ensured his research would continue.

Power of the people

The professor and his team of scientists had successfully engineered a virus to target neuroendocrine tumour (NET) cells when the funding ran out. NETs are a cancer of glands in the body that release hormones under the control of the nervous system. It is the cancer that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died from and no cure has been found yet.

At the same time, 1,200 miles away in Britain, after a friend was diagnosed with NETs, author Alexander Masters had a brainwave. He was appalled that potentially life-saving research had (literally) been put on ice because of lack of funds, so he decided he would use the power of crowdfunding to raise the money himself.

Typically, crowdfunding campaigns have been used to help entrepreneurs and creative types to raise capital for a business idea or product, but Alexander Masters decided to use the model to raise $2m to enable human trials to begin.

“We launched the project to a flurry of publicity,” recalls one of Alexander’s friends, Liz Scarff, who helped organise the iCancer crowdfunding campaign. “It just flew off, straight from the beginning, with donations coming in every five minutes.”

Donations were organised through Indiegogo, a reputable crowdfunding platform, with money transferred directly to Uppsala University. Average donations were between just $5 and $15, which demonstrates how effectual crowdfunding campaigns can be, simply by bringing together large numbers of people to donate small amounts.

Within 12 months, thanks to the crowdfunding efforts, together with a larger donation from a private individual, the campaign successfully raised the $2m needed for human trials (though you can still donate at http://icancer.org.uk).

“It really all adds up,” says Liz. “This definitely has a future for funding medical research. iCancer has opened the door of possibility, showing people how crowdfunding campaigns can be effective.”

Complementary therapy

While Professor Essand is delighted that the iCancer campaign successfully raised funds for his research, he isn’t sure he would recommend it to his colleagues. “It isn’t up to a researcher to set up a crowdfunding page and raise the money. You need professional help and good timing,” he explains. “Crowdfunding is a good complement to traditional funding, but it cannot entirely replace peer-reviewed scientific grants.”

Dr Julia Wilson, assistant director of research at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, is also sceptical about whether crowdfunding could be applied to all forms and types of cancer research. “We set our funding strategy by looking at what will make the biggest difference to patients, based on where the gaps are,” she explains. “My concern is that while crowdfunding may fund high-profile, sexy projects, the more basic – but fundamental – bits of research could be left behind.”

Make sure it is good science

The concept of crowdfunding is, for CRUK’s Nick Grant, “very interesting”, however. In particular, he explains, crowdfunding for a specific project can give donors a sense of where exactly their money will go. This has traditionally been a challenge in cancer research. “We don’t have the Oxfam goat or the Christian Aid mosquito net, where you know exactly where your £5 is going,” he says.

But he also recognises that with crowdfunding for a specific project comes the issue of due diligence. “We spend a lot of time selecting research projects but, because the research is peer-reviewed, it is robust,” he points out.

The research at Uppsala University was, without a doubt, also robust. But, in a sense, Alexander Masters et al were lucky that Professor Essand is a recognised academic at one of Europe’s top research universities. “When it comes to funding, you need a kind of insurance that it is good science – all of the other grants that I’ve been awarded have been peer-reviewed and approved by various organisations. Otherwise, it could be a bit random,” acknowledges the professor.

In this case, the $2m raised by the iCancer campaign is being put to good use. The Swedish team’s NET-beating virus is on the verge of being manufactured at a clinical grade, which will then allow it to be used in the required human trials.

Will the people behind iCancer launch another campaign to keep funding this research? “This was just a one-off for us,” says Liz. “But we’re excited to see how iCancer’s success will help the research move forward.”

Source: This article first appeared in benhealth, issue 26 (spring 2014).