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Auckland student in global breast cancer challenge

7 March 2014

Auckland student in successful global breast cancer challenge

A University of Auckland doctoral student is part of a team which won a division of the inaugural Breast Cancer Startup Challenge announced in Washington this week.

The global business plan challenge is an international competition comprised of 10 winning research technologies that were judged to show great promise to advance breast cancer research.

Francis Hunter from Auckland is a fourth year PhD student, based at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre at the University of Auckland, working with Professor Bill Wilson and Dr Jingli Wang.

His team competed in the division tasked with ‘developing human monoclonal antibody based human therapies’. The Stanford University-led team created a new start-up company (Mesopharm Therapeutics). Francis is the Chief Scientific Officer (in his spare time) for the new company.

The company will receive the licenses and seed funding to produce the therapeutic armed antibody they proposed. He anticipates that some of the key early development work can be done in New Zealand.

Francis says his role was to develop the research and development strategy for the cancer drug that the team have proposed.

“I also had to identify key partnerships and collaborations that will help us to achieve this, to analyse competing drugs that are currently under development for the same molecular target and identify the pharmacology our product will need to achieve competitive advantage,” he says.

He drafted the components of the company’s business plan and along with another former University of Auckland doctoral student, Graeme Fielder, pitched their concept to the judging panel, at the live judging sessions.

“I’m committed to remain in New Zealand for the immediate future and will be active in a research and entrepreneurial capacity during that time. My hope is that key elements of the early development of our drug can take place at the University of Auckland,” says Francis.

The ten winners of the world-wide competition to bring emerging breast cancer research technologies to market faster were announced this week by the Avon Foundation for Women in partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Centre for Advancing Innovation (CAI).

These 10 inventions were developed at NCI or at an Avon Foundation-funded university lab and include therapeutics, diagnostics, prognostics, one device, one vaccine, one delivery system and one health IT invention.

Teams of business, legal, medical/scientific, engineering, computer science students and seasoned entrepreneurs have evaluated these technologies to create business plans and start new companies to develop and commercialise them.

Francis is studying for a PhD in Molecular Medicine and Pathology, supervised by Prof Bill Wilson at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre.

“There are several facets to my PhD research, but a unifying theme is investigating important differences that manifest in the biology of individual cancers and their implications for the outcome of treatment, particularly in the context of new cancer drugs that we are developing at the University of Auckland”, he says.

“This is a broad and cutting-edge area of research known as 'personalised medicine'.” says Francis. ”We have identified an opportunity to apply these principles to improve patient outcomes for triple-negative breast cancer, which is an aggressive form of breast cancer that is not eligible for treatment with Herceptin or anti-estrogens.”

“The Breast Cancer Startup Challenge is not directly related to my PhD, although the many, many things I have learned from Bill, [Professor Bill Wilson] as well as my involvement with the Spark Entrepreneurship Challenge, was key to succeeding in this competition,” he says.

The founder and CEO of the Centre for Advancing Innovation, Rosemarie Truman, says “Today, progress in breast cancer research depends on step-change advances in technology and on paradigm-shifting strategies to rapidly bring these advances to market so they can be used by scientists and physicians.

“Thanks to the Avon Foundation and the National Cancer Institute, CAI has been able to identify potentially breakthrough technologies that harness the intelligence, experience and creativity of the innovative thinkers in the challenge,” she says.

“The challenge has exceeded expectations and we are thrilled with the results. We believe that this is a novel, sustainable model that can be institutionalized to commercialize federally-owned inventions and philanthropically-funded inventions that will accelerate and increase the volume of progress in research and ultimately save the lives of many women stricken by breast cancer.”

Two hundred teams expressed an interest in joining the challenge and 46 teams were accepted to compete on a range of business plan possibilities. In total, 478 people participated in the competition. Given the number of teams and people on each team, this challenge is one of the largest global university business plan challenges to date.

Winners and finalists in the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge will not only be recognized for creating a business plan and pitch, as other competitions require, but they will also be invited to launch a start-up, negotiate licensing agreements and raise seed funding to further develop these NCI and Avon Foundation grantee inventions.

For more information on the Challenge, please go to

The Avon Foundation for Women, the world’s largest corporate-affiliated philanthropy focused on issues that matter most to women, was founded in 1955 to improve the lives of women. Through 2013, Avon global philanthropy, led by the Avon Foundation, has donated more than $957 million in more than 50 countries for causes most important to women. Today, Avon philanthropy focuses on funding breast cancer research and access to care through the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, and efforts to reduce domestic and gender violence through its Speak Out Against Domestic Violence program. Visit for more information.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) leads the National Cancer Program and the NIH effort to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers.


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