Finding effective treatments for cancers of every kind has long been the holy grail for research scientists. Drugs and therapies have improved markedly, especially in recent years, with increases in survival rates and even complete cures.

Nonetheless, cancer is still a killer, a disease where many of its mysteries have yet to be unravelled.

Prof Paul Workman is both deputy chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and Head of Cancer Therapeutics. His distinguished scientific career has taken him to both sides of the fence, first academia at Cambridge and Glasgow, then head of cancer research at AstraZeneca.

So he understands the imperatives that drive the pharmaceutical industry and how it has had to react to the ongoing economic crisis.

“The problem is that in the current climate and with the financial constraints, the pharma and biotech industries are unwilling to take on the high-risk, early-stage projects,” Prof Workman explained.

“That is where we come in. Our funding comes from the charity Cancer Research UK, so we are non-profit making. That freedom allows us to pursue the best possible new drug targets.”

The attrition rate for cancer drugs as they move from early-stage research through to very expensive clinical trials is up to 95 per cent, which represents high risk to commercial organisations.

In the past, drug therapy for cancer patients has involved a one size fits all approach. Every patient with a certain type of cancer was given the same treatment. The drugs used were mainly of the cytotoxic chemotherapy kind.

Cytotoxic drugs, often used in combinations, attack cells and can be very effective in combating cancers. Unfortunately, they also attack healthy cells and can damage DNA. The added problem is one of drug resistance after as little as six months, caused by mutations in the cancer.

The need is for more powerful treatments with fewer side-effects, tailored to individual patients and known as personalised medicine.

Targeting a therapy to an individual is becoming the rule rather than the exception. For the ICR researchers, their work is underpinned by a better understanding of the genetics and biochemistry that cause cancer cells to develop and spread. That understanding has been accelerated recently by the sequencing of the DNA code of cancer genomes.

The new treatments use molecularly-targeted drugs that act on targets upon which cancer cells are more dependent than normal cells. They are very effective in those cancers that have particular gene defects and are far more efficacious and better tolerated than chemotherapy.

Another key element in the ICR strategy is to work closely with the clinicians at the nearby Royal Marsden cancer hospital to identify the most important new drug targets.

This is the antithesis of the standard tactic, where researchers select their own targets without reference to the medical profession.

Not only does the ICR work hand in glove with the Royal Marsden, but also, there are reciprocal appointments, with ICR staff in the hospital and vice versa. A bonus is that the tight-knit collaborations overcome the cultural divide that can so often stand between researchers and medical staff.

The ICR strategy has paid dividends. No less than 16 new drug candidates have been discovered in the last six years, with six of these progressed into clinical trial.

One of those candidates is Abiraterone, a treatment for late-stage prostate cancer, which over the last year has been approved, starting in the United States and progressing to Europe.

Prof Workman and his multi-disciplinary team of 160 have been the recipients of a number of awards. In 2010, Prof Workman was the winner of the prestigious George and Christine Sosnovsky Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) for his work in discovering new anti-cancer drugs acting on molecular chaperones. In 2012, the team became the first outside the US to win the American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award.

Now Prof Workman is the recipient of the global 2012 Chemistry Entrepreneur of the Year Award, once again from the RSC. This recognises both the 16 new drug candidates and the two drug research companies he helped to found. Piramed was established in 2002 following some collaborative research with the former Yamanouchi Research in Oxford on PI3 kinases, enzymes involved in cancer. When Yamanouchi discontinued the project, Prof Workman and two colleagues were given the intellectual property to commercialise. With strong venture funding providing capital, they developed the technology and licensed it to US market leader Genentech. In 2008, Genentech, the founder of the biotechnology industry, was acquired by Roche.

Closer to home, Chroma Therapeutics, now based at Milton Park, studies chromatins, the combination of DNA and proteins that make up the contents of the nucleus of a cell. Its work targets new treatments for cancer and inflammation. One drug, Tosedostat, is about to enter Phase III clinical trials and has shown strong response rates from elderly patients with acute myeloid leukaemia. Both companies worked closely with the ICR to discover drug candidates.

RSC President Prof David Phillips said in his citation: “Prof Workman is truly a scientific pioneer and serial entrepreneur.”

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