Detecting success

Published Oct 30, 2019

A joint venture established in 2016 between the University of South Australia (UniSA), Victoria University of Wellington and Viclink is taking another major step forward as it moves to help surgeons around the world to detect and treat a wider range of common cancers.

“Approximately 40 percent of people will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime,” says Stewart Bartlett, CEO of Ferronova, the cancer diagnostics company spun-out of the joint venture. “Treatment success relies on how accurately surgeons can determine where, and how far, cancer has spread from a primary tumour—and that’s where our technology comes into its own.” 

Stewart says Ferronova brings together an ultra-sensitive magnetic probe (developed by UniSA researchers) which works in conjunction with iron magnetic nanoparticle tracers (developed by Victoria University of Wellington researchers), to enable surgeons to detect the spread of cancer throughout the body. 

The highly magnetic but low-toxicity nanoparticles are injected into a patient’s primary tumour, and the hand-held probe used to trace their progression through the body’s natural lymphatic pathways to detect the spread of the disease.  

“The traditional method for finding sentinel lymph nodes involves using radioisotopes,” explains Stewart. “But the imaging resolution is so poor that when nodes are close to an injection site they can’t always be seen—giving rise to a high number of ‘false negative’ results.” 

Stewart says that by using magnetic tracers instead of radioisotopes, Ferronova’s magnetometer probe provides high spatial resolution, giving surgeons significantly more lymph node visibility—leading to more accurate diagnosis, staging and treatment for cancer patients.  

The team’s first pre-clinical trial is focused on complex head and neck cancers (primarily oral cancer) where the nodes are closely packed or clustered, making them difficult to find. However, Ferronova is adapting its original market strategy and extending its focus to include pelvic cancers as well. 

“The number of patients with oral cancer in developed countries is quite low compared with more prevalent types such as colorectal, prostate, cervical and stomach cancers,” says Stewart. “So it makes sense to focus our efforts where we can improve survival rates for a greater number of people.” He says the company is now looking to raise $2m to fund new trials for these other cancer indications in 2020. 

Ferronova has made great progress resolving a problem endemic with all prior attempts at commercialising magnetic nanoparticles and is now also commencing testing of a modified particle that can be used with other manufacturers’ existing surgical equipment. A fluorescent coating will also enable particles to be seen by a surgical robot’s infra-red camera during robotic surgery. 

Stewart says the team has just manufactured its first batch of the nanoparticles ready for in-human trials next year.  

“To manufacture anything that’s going to be injected into humans, you have to meet the absolute highest quality production standards,” he says. “Luckily, we had UniSA’s own custom-built GMP-certified production facility at our disposal, which was a huge advantage.” 

With an estimated global market in excess of USD$3 billion, and millions of people who could benefit from the technology, Ferronova is already in discussions with large cancer hospitals in the United States, and several more in the United Kingdom and Australia. “There’s no shortage of clinicians wanting to be involved.”

He says they could not have come as far as they have without the support of shareholders like Viclink. “We recently welcomed Hamish Findlay, Viclink’s General Manager, Commercialisation, as both a Ferronova Board member and a Director, so we’re looking forward to leveraging his expertise.” 

Hamish says he’s excited to see the nanoparticle technology that was pioneered by former Victoria University of Wellington researchers Professor Richard Tilley (who is still a science advisor for Ferronova), Dr Anna Henning, and Dr Melanie Nelson, getting closer to making a difference out in the world. 

“Ferronova is a perfect example of how international research partnerships can open up commercialisation pathways that can ultimately have global impact,” says Hamish. 

For more information, please email Hamish Findlay.