Procertus BioPharm tackles the unpleasant side effects of cancer treatment

The following is the fourth in a series of features on Wisconsin companies that are doing promising work in the global fight against cancer.

The ancient caveat that the cure is sometimes worse than the disease is, for the most part, not true when it comes to cancer. After all, cancer treatment is the ultimate life-or-death intervention, and most people would prefer to live with moderate – or even severe – discomfort if the prognosis included a happy and healthy life.

But unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some patients will decline cancer treatment simply because the side effects are too unpalatable or too onerous.

Indeed, one study found that fully 8% of women would decline chemotherapy because of the fear of hair loss, while 47% of female patients feel that hair loss is the most traumatic part of chemotherapy.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Nausea, pain from radiation, and other ill effects make cancer treatment a daunting prospect for many people.

That’s why Todd Argall and the rest of the management team at Madison’s Procertus BioPharm are so excited about the work they’re doing in the field of cancer research.

No, they’re not close to curing cancer – and they never will be, even if everything goes perfectly. But they could ultimately make the side effects from cancer treatment a lot easier to live with – and that in itself could end up saving plenty of lives.

“Sometimes [the effects of radiation] are so painful that the patient elects not to proceed with their radiation treatments, and obviously if you don’t get the radiation treatments, your chance of long-term survival decreases,” said Argall, vice president of finance for the Madison-based pharmaceutical company. “And with alopecia [hair loss], even though that’s cosmetic – because the hair almost always grows back – that’s one of the main reasons that cancer patients choose to forgo radiation or chemotherapy.”

Currently, Procertus BioPharm has three drugs in the pipeline. The drugs’ “working titles” are ProDermaCel, OralX, and DermX.

ProDermaCel is a topically applied drug that’s designed to prevent hair loss in patients undergoing chemotherapy or cranial radiotherapy.

OralX is a topical drug designed to prevent oral mucositis, a painful inflammation in the mouth that often occurs following radiation treatments for head and neck cancer.

Finally, DermX is another topical drug intended to protect skin from radiodermatitis, which often results from the radiation therapy that’s given to cancer patients.

According to Argall, the company is currently focusing its efforts on DermX in the short term because it simply doesn’t have the funding to take all its drugs through the gauntlet of clinical trials required to bring them to market – though the company has completed proof of concept studies in animal models for all its drugs.

“When cancer patients receive a radiation treatment, they receive radiation to the tumor or postsurgically after the tumor has been removed,” said Argall. “The radiation treatments cause skin burn similar to what you would get from the sun, but much more intense, and that causes the patients great discomfort.”

Avoiding the ‘treatment gap’

According to one study, cancer patients who suffer from severe radiodermatitis are often faced with the choice of gutting it out or missing one or more days of radiation therapy, which creates a problematic “treatment gap” that could endanger the health of the patient.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which is quoted on Procertus BioPharm’s website, notes that “there is much evidence for the detrimental effect on tumor control of missed treatment days during radiotherapy, amounting to approximately 1.6% increase in local tumor recurrence per day of treatment in the case of head and neck squamous cell cancer.”

Currently, no products exist to prevent or effectively treat radiodermatitis, which is part of what has the folks at Procertus BioPharm so excited about their drug’s prospects.

“Currently to treat radiodermatitis, doctors just prescribe ointments that you put on after the condition has showed up, but nothing that prevents the radiodermatitis from occurring in the first place,” said Argall.

So far, the company has depended on the support of Venture Investors, which provided a large portion of the venture funding, as well as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, from which the technology was licensed.

The company is confident that if all goes well, its arsenal of drugs will, as its management team claims, “fundamentally change the quality of life for cancer patients.”

Before that can happen, though, its lead drug, DermX, has some hurdles to clear.

“Before the drug would be approved by the FDA and go to market, we would have to do the typical Phase III studies for the FDA, which is a full-blown multi-site study,” said Argall. “I don’t know what the number would be, perhaps several hundred patients, so it’s unlikely we would have the wherewithal to do those studies ourselves. So the strategy right now is to show proof-of-concept to show that our drug works in the patients that are in the current clinical trial, and then once we have that proof of concept data, take it to a larger pharmaceutical company that would have the wherewithal to do that full-blown Phase III study and get the drug to market.”

More in this series:

Developed at the UW, Quintessence Biosciences’ innovative approach to fighting cancer shows early promise

A Prudent approach: Centrose’s unique cancer therapy moves forward

SHINE brings a light of hope to cancer and heart patients