A nervous trek

St. Boniface researcher brings a promising neuropathy remedy to market

He’s worked in three departments headed by Nobel Laureates in the U.K. and could probably don a labcoat at the institute of his choosing. But for Londoner Dr. Paul Fernyhough, some encouraging words from a future colleague and a few pints of local Fort Garry Dark helped convince him that St-Boniface Hospital Research was the place to be.

“I had no idea of the quality of what was going on in St. Boniface particularly, so I visited it a few times, drank a bit of Fort Garry, and I was on the hook from then on.”

Dr. Fernyhough, Principal Investigator, Cell Biology of Neurodegeneration Lab, Division of Neurodegenerative Disorders at St-Boniface Hospital Research, has worked in Winnipeg since 2004. He learned about the city and St. Boniface Hospital while doing a postdoctoral program at Colorado State University where he met Dr. Gordon Glazner, another Principal Investigator at St. Boniface. Dr. Glazner’s glowing descriptions of the work and the environment at St. Boniface stimulated Dr. Fernyhough’s interest.

Fort Garry Dark

“I had no idea of the quality of what was going on in St. Boniface particularly, so I visited it a few times, drank a bit of Fort Garry, and I was on the hook from then on,” he says.

Since arriving in Winnipeg, Dr. Fernyhough’s work has focused on two broad areas. First, he performs basic research trying to fully understand how nerves grow – “the basic mechanisms of what makes things work in the human body,” as he explains it.

Second, Dr. Fernyhough has enjoyed significant success in some “translational” or applied research, specifically “taking existing drugs and identifying new functions” for them. His work is promising from a commercial as well as a  patient perspective.

Neuropathy

“We’ve had a major program funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and supported by St. Boniface Hospital Foundation that has led to the identification of a new group of drugs that could be used to repair nerves, mainly in diabetes where it’s a big problem causing pain and amputation,” he explains. “But it can help in other diseases as well. For example, people who take anti-cancer drugs get severe pain and our drug, we think, could be used to prevent that pain.”

Not surprisingly, this topical cream that Dr. Fernyhough and his colleagues have developed to treat diabetic nerve damage (neuropathy) has generated commercial interest that will lead to further testing. And the cream does more than arrest the development of the neuropathy; it can actually revive and heal the damaged nerves.

Regeneration is key

“We have clear evidence that our drug can do that,” says Dr. Fernyhough. “It’s the first study to show that you can regenerate fibers in an animal model. It’s never been shown before.”

This neuropathy work has global implications, but it is especially important in Manitoba where 100,000 people live with diabetes and thousands of those undergo lower extremity amputation every year. It costs up to $150 million per year to treat diabetic neuropathy in Manitoba – direct costs, including amputation and foot treatment. Early detection and better treatments would enhance individual health, community well-being, and the provincial economy.

To advance the work, a private company called WinSanTor BioSciences Inc. has been established by St. Boniface Hospital Research with partners from the Universities of Manitoba, San Diego, and Toronto. This is a common practice at St. Boniface Hospital and throughout Canada’s research community. When products are brought to market successfully, there can be significant financial benefit to the hospital, the universities and the researcher. More important, useful drugs can only get to patients if the drugs are available for purchase.

The experience of commercializing the cream has been, well, nerve-racking, but exciting nonetheless. “I have no business sense whatsoever,” jokes Dr. Fernyhough. “My wife will back that up.” He is not alone on the journey, though, as there is a strong partnership in place and investment by the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The endeavour is also firmly grounded by patents in Canada, the United States, and China, the EU with other countries to follow soon. The next step is more extensive clinical trials to demonstrate the cream’s effectiveness beyond any doubt.

A promising start

For diabetics and cancer patients suffering from drug side effects, the work is very promising. Dr. Fernyhough and his colleagues are on the brink of making life significantly better for thousands of people. Dr. Fernyhough credits his research success, in part, to the work done by many others before him: scientists who explored and dabbled based on hunches and ideas – “curiosity-driven research,” as he calls it.

“The reason we’ve been able to move our work into commercialization quite quickly is that I was able to go online and dig out hundreds of papers that enabled me to quickly grasp the ins and outs of how this drug was working,” he says. “Without that, we’d be completely in the dark.”

For Dr. Fernyhough, the availability of such curiosity-driven research funding though St. Boniface Hospital Foundation is part of the appeal of working in Winnipeg. Thanks to donors, funds are available to build on the knowledge of others and work with international partners to ask the questions, and find the answers that have the potential to improve the well-being of people everywhere.

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