Impatient with the US NIH, a cancer researcher turns to crowdfunding for his work.
DR DANIEL Saltzman says he can prove that bacteria that ordinarily cause food poisoning in people can be modified for use as guided missiles to deliver cancer-killing payloads into tumours.
But he needs US$500,000 (RM1.61mil) for some preliminary work, and despite his project’s potential, he’s not holding his breath for funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), America’s leading source of biomedical research grants.
So, Dr Saltzman has teamed up with an entrepreneur in the television industry and Twin Cities advertising and public relations professionals to make an unusual direct appeal to the public. In the process, he’s helping to bring so-called crowdsourcing to the field of medical research.
“This is very different... and so there has to be a leap of faith” for the research to be funded, said Dr Saltzman, surgeon-in-chief at Amplatz Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, US, and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota (U of M).
To convince people of his work’s promise, Dr Saltzman and his partner have built a website branding his research “Project Stealth”, created an eye-catching plush toy to represent the salmonella bacterium, made a video featuring Dr Saltzman and a golden retriever named Buddy, and turned to private fundraising events and crowdfunding avenues like Razoo.com.
Dr Saltzman, who has raised about US$32,000 (RM103,067) since launching Project Stealth in mid-October, acknowledges that the approach is unusual.
But he says that, with US federal research funds getting tighter every year, he had little choice. “The bottom line is, there’s a lot of competition, a lot of labs, and only so much money.”
An ethical move?
He is not the first scientist who turned to public appeals for funding in an era of tight federal research budgets.
Over the past decade, inflation has eroded more than 20% of the buying power of NIH grants for scientists studying genomics, neurology, cancer, heart disease and countless other health issues.
With so many competing projects, NIH has reduced the percentage of requests it has funded.
Such novel fundraising methods raise concerns because they don’t go through the conventional peer-review process, said Dr Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
And when they rely on celebrities, as some do, they can draw money for reasons other than scientific merit, he said.
But after reviewing Dr Saltzman’s video at the request of the Star Tribune, Dr Caplan said in an email: “One can always niggle at these things, but it seems fine... (a) strong plea for money, but from a very legit research program.”
Dr Caplan’s only concern was why the project hadn’t drawn NIH or foundation funding, given its promising results in animals.
Dr Saltzman has been studying the use of bacteria as a potential way to fight cancer since 1993, and thinks he’s on the verge of a breakthrough.
He says he needs about US$250,000 (RM805,915) a year for two years to develop the data required to convince the US Food and Drug Administration to authorize human testing.
If approved, he said, the U of M has committed to pay for the $800,000 (RM2.58mil) it would take to run the phase I clinical trial in humans.
Although the university provides researchers with expensive tools like electron microscopes and a fertile environment for the exchange of ideas, Dr Saltzman said: “They give you a room and they turn on the lights. They charge rent for the room. But every lab and every... principal investigator is basically charged with raising their own funds to do research.”
The idea of crowdfunding Dr Saltzman’s work came from Max Duckler, a semiretired entrepreneur, who, in 1993, founded CaptionMax, a closed-captioning service for television.
Duckler has a degree in biology and a lifelong fascination with medicine. He attended a fundraiser where he bid to spend a day with a surgeon.
He won, shadowed Dr Saltzman on six surgeries, and learned about the cancer research.
Duckler said he was disturbed to find that Dr Saltzman and his lab workers were worried whether they could afford to spend $600 (RM1,934) to buy special research mice.
“Six hundred dollars, and you have to ask whether you can afford it? This is not good,” Duckler said.
A medical advertising firm called StoneArch and a public relations firm named PineappleRM donated their services to publicize Dr Saltzman’s work, and the Twin Cities office of BusinessWire distributed the news release at no charge.
In the marketing video, Dr Saltzman describes how the engineered salmonella penetrate a tumour and activate the body’s immune system to destroy it.
“We have tested this therapy in over 4,000 mice. In addition, in small pilot studies in humans and dogs with cancer, we have not seen any side effects at all. Can you imagine a cancer treatment without side effects, whatsoever?”
Dr Jeff Miller, deputy director of the U of M’s Masonic Cancer Center, said Dr Saltzman’s pitch in the video goes a little far for some researchers, who prefer to seek the university’s institutional funds for basic research.
“Lots of people have good ideas here,” Dr Miller said. “I don’t think what Dan is doing is being looked down upon. I think the issue is that we just want people to be honest and realistic about their claims when they’re tied to the institution.”
Project Stealth donations go directly to the University of Minnesota Foundation and are subject to its controls and management, said Sarah Youngerman, a spokeswoman.
She said Dr Saltzman hasn’t misrepresented himself. “This guy is changing people’s lives – kids’ lives,” she said.
Crowdsourcing, which other U of M researchers have used occasionally, “isn’t where you’re going to raise big, big dollars,” Youngerman said, but it can help with public awareness.
“A lot of people feel like they can make a difference in a very small way. And certainly they can, as you aggregate those US$10 (RM32.24) gifts or those US$50 (RM161.20) gifts.”
Dr Saltzman says he has applied for 11 grants. One was rejected, one was awarded US$30,000 (RM96,720), and he’s awaiting responses on the rest.
This isn’t his first effort to prove the salmonella concept. He got a US$375,000 (RM1.21mil) grant from the US National Cancer Institute a few years ago, and has won support from several smaller funds.
All told, he said, he has spent US$125,000 (RM402,984) to US$250,000 (RM805,915) a year on the project in the last 13 years. – Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/MCT Information Services