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The Centre for Transformative Innovation, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and the Convergence Science Network hosted an evening lecture at Swinburne University titled ‘A Folklore Remedy for Skin Cancer’ by Dr. James Aylward on the 9th of August 2018. The talk revolved around Dr. James Aylward’s journey of discovering the active ingredient, ingenol mebutate, in the anti-cancer drug, Picato, and what process of drug development was involved.
Dr. Aylward’s anecdote of how he stumbled upon the herb that changed his career was entertaining and made me believe in “fate”. Through a newspaper article cut-out with the headline ‘Plant sap’ ‘cures’ man’s skin cancer’ that his mother showed him, Dr. Aylward proceeded to conduct some research on the background of this ‘miracle weed’. Euphorbia peplus, more commonly known as milkweed, was used in the 1700s as a herbal remedy to enhance life and treat some outrageous symptoms we would never think of today. Hence, Dr. Aylward had commonly referred to the remedy as a ‘folklore remedy’.
Filled with scepticism and doubt, Dr. Aylward still took his chances to explore the action and effect of milkweed on cancer cells. After successful tests, it was found that the mechanism of action involved ingenol mebutate causing primary necrosis of the cancer cells’ mitochondria, leading to the cell’s ‘powerhouse’ to swell and explode. Furthermore, the drug activates IL-1 (interleukin-1), which is a protein that is responsible for inflammatory responses. This leads to the upregulation of neutrophils, which are cancer cell killers.
After many business-related ups and downs throughout the 16-year drug development process, Picato finally made it on the market following the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), New Drug Application (NDA) and Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australia in 2013. This treatment for non-melanoma skin cancer was the first of its kind, being formulated as a non-invasive gel. Other achievements include it being the first ever cancer chemotherapeutic drug developed in Australia and a non-DNA-damaging agent, which is rare for cancer treatments.
Attending Dr. Aylward’s lecture was a valuable learning experience for me and my colleagues. An important lesson I learnt from the talk was to seize opportunities no matter how big or small. Without leaping at the chance to investigate the questionable effect of the herb, Dr. Aylward would not have invented such a ground-breaking treatment for cancer. Furthermore, I appreciated Dr. Aylward’s perseverance through such a long and tough fight to finally share his invention to the world.