Punit Dhillon built his career arranging Canadian venture capital funding for life sciences research and running companies that performed clinical trials in Canada.
Yet when he co-founded a company to develop cancer treatments two years ago, the president and chief executive officer of San Diego-based OncoSec Medical Inc. found he had no option but to operate solely in the United States.
"It's for practical reasons," he explains. It's easier to recruit patients for clinical trials south of the border.
But Mr. Dhillon has been able to alter the playing field by partnering with Smart Patients, an online community that creates a dialogue between doctors and patients and makes it easier for OncoSec to find patients interested in participating in clinical trials. He is optimistic it will lead to more efficient trials and help expand OncoSec's next phase of research to Canada.
"It costs millions of dollars for development of a new therapy. If we can economize on any aspect and get better understandings based on collaborations between doctors and patients, it becomes more efficient," Mr. Dhillon says.
Developments in social media have made it possible to involve patients as citizen scientists, says Roni Zeiger, a co-founder of Smart Patients, based in Mountain View, Calif. "They can share stories about their personal experiences, interact with prominent researchers and clinicians and learn about clinical trials they might consider joining."
Patient input may also help trials run more cost-effectively. "Smart Patients brings user-centered design – something we talk about in the software world all the time – to the clinical trial world," Dr. Zeiger says. That means assumptions built into the trials can be tested based on user preferences before the design is finalized.
While patients are unlikely to provide insights into the science of a trial, other more practical aspects can be addressed, such as how far patients may be willing to travel, the number of treatments and how they are administered, Dr. Zeiger adds.
"What we're seeing in the work we are doing with OncoSec is the design of trials that will be more attractive to patients, so we will have an easier time recruiting and a greater likelihood of finishing on schedule," he says.
The hope is that all of this will provide more incentive for Canadian venture capitalists to back clinical research, particularly in cancer trials. American venture capitalists, Mr. Dhillon says, are patient enough to invest in research that might span a decade, and even then may not result in a marketable treatment.
"A greater access to well-informed patients in clinical trials would make it more attractive for companies to have a presence in Canada and invest in life sciences," says Calvin Stiller, chair of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
Oncology clinical trials take an average of 50 per cent longer to conduct than those for other diseases, according to an analysis by life science software company DecisionView, a division of Connecticut-based IMS Health Inc. The bottleneck is patient recruiting, which takes 75 per cent longer than with other diseases, the study found.
Meanwhile institutions that run trials have been facing budgetary squeezes and the costs for drugs and imaging are rising.
Mr. Dhillon hopes greater access to capital can prevent companies from moving south.
"What we need to do is reinstall confidence for Canadian investors so that we can have a robust industry that supports investment into life sciences and develops a cycle of growth."