Tracing a path to success

Published Jul 23, 2018

A prototype medical device that uses magnetic (rather than radioactive) tracers to detect complex head and neck cancers, is now one step closer to reaching the patients it has been designed to help, thanks to a recent boost in investment. 

Ferronova, a company established in 2016 to commercialise the joint technology from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of South Australia (UniSA), recently capital-raised AUD$630,000 from its existing shareholders—Viclink, UniSA Ventures and Powerhouse Ventures—and two new angel investors. 

The Adelaide-based company also received an additional AUD$500,000 through the South Australian Early Stage Commercialisation Fund to develop and test the two-piece device which consists of an ultrasensitive magnetometer probe (developed by UniSA researchers) and iron core nanoparticle tracers (developed by researchers at Victoria University). 

Cancer surgeons inject the highly magnetic but low-toxicity nanoparticles into a patient’s primary tumour, then use the hand-held probe to trace the progression of the nanoparticles through the body’s natural lymphatic pathways—the same pathways that cancer travels when it metastasises—to detect the spread of the disease. Surgery is more precise and targeted as a result, which means that less healthy tissue is removed and trauma to the patient is significantly reduced. 

Ferronova’s CEO Stewart Bartlett says that the package provides a powerful solution to a very real healthcare problem. “In head and neck cancers, where the nodes are closely packed or clustered, traditional techniques struggle to detect tumours—but this is where our innovative tech really proves its effectiveness. 

He says the new investment will be used to fund the first ‘in-human’ trials of the product. 

“Having two parts to our product means we need two sets of regulatory approvals before it can be marketed,” Mr Bartlett explains. “And because one of those parts is injectable, it is more like a ‘drug’; therefore, we have to carry out large multi-centre trials before we can apply for approval. The funding will help us to progress through the regulatory processes so we can start the human trials.”   

With an estimated global market in excess of USD$600 million, and millions of people who could benefit from the solution, Mr Bartlett says the Ferronova team is happy to do the ‘hard yards’ to get it into the hands of clinicians for trial with patients and, once clinically proven, to market. 

The talented team, which includes Victoria University alumni Dr Anna Henning and Dr Richard Tilley, has been working closely with surgeons at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) in Australia to carry out pre-clinical animal studies that prove the nanoparticles are stable and perform well. 

“The surgeons have been extremely keen and supportive,” says Mr Bartlett. “One of them has actually chosen to study the effectiveness of the product as part of his PhD.” 

With one successful capital-raise behind him, Mr Bartlett says he is already focused on commencing the next round, looking beyond the in-human trials. He says he is grateful for the integral role Viclink has played in the development of the company through its support of the nanoparticles research, and for the introduction to Powerhouse Ventures, now a shareholder and major investor. 

“This successful spin-out is a perfect example of how international research partnerships can open up commercialisation pathways that can ultimately have global impact,” he concludes.