FDA approves Western University cancer drug after 30 years

It's been a long haul for professor emeritus Duncan Hunter. Thirty years ago he conducted research on a drug called Azedra to treat specific types of adrenal cancer. That drug has just received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Professor emeritus Duncan Hunter developed specialized cancer drug in 1988.

FDA approves drug developed at Western University after 30 years. (FDA)

It's been a long haul for professor emeritus Duncan Hunter. Thirty years ago he conducted research on a drug called Azedra to treat specific types of adrenal cancer. That drug has just received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"It's a relief," said Hunter. "It's been so long in coming you can't maintain a level of excitement. But, it certainly is a relief."

Hunter understands why it took 30 years to get the seal of approval. The compound is highly radioactive. It is injected intravenously and targets tumours that can't be removed otherwise. 

"It's a bit like a magic bullet that goes where you want it to. The rest of it goes into the blood stream and most of it comes out in the urine," said Hunter. 

But, that kind of selectivity and using a compound that is radioactive comes at a price. The initial research at Western University meant only low levels of radioactive material could be used. Much higher levels of the radioactive compound were used when a company carried out further testing for therapeutic use. Other partners also got involved including Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. 

It's a bit like a magic bullet that goes where you want it to.-Duncan Hunter

"They had to show the purity. They had to show that it could be reproduced. And, then they had to get approval for the clinical trials. So all of this just takes extreme care and time," said Hunter. 

As well, those who will benefit from the treatment are few. 

"In the United States apparently there are about 1,000 people with this," said Hunter.

"My understanding they (doctors) start by trying to do it (treat a tumour) surgically and if that doesn't work then this is the fallback position because normally you wouldn't want to inject people with radioactivity unless you have to."

Hunter doesn't expect any financial windfall from the FDA's approval of Azedra.  

It requires a specialized facility to make the compound and a specialized facility for treating the patient. It also has a short shelf-life of only about a week, according to Hunter.

But, the former researcher chokes up when asked how it feels to know his drug could help save lives. 

"Of course I feel happy," he said.