November 27, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A speaker at the up-coming TEDMEDLive event explains how crowdsourcing funding has shaped her research...


TEDMEDLive Imperial College is an independently-organised showcase of talks from medical researchers taking place on 21 April 2013. It will be viewed online by 29 times Imperial’s student population, and 800 people will attend in person.

Here, Justyna Leja, a Swedish cancer researcher billed to speak at the event, describes the unconventional means she uses to bring her lab’s work through clinical trials in humans. 


My research focuses on a particular cancer treatment called oncolytic virus therapy and its application to neuroendocratic tumours (NET).

Oncolytic virus therapy involves the use of genetically modified viruses that can both reproduce within and destroy tumours. This technique has major advantages as an anti-cancer agent over conventional drugs due to the virus’s ability to infect neighbouring tumour cells once it has lysed (killed) its original target. Introducing the virus can also alter tumours’ ability to suppress the body’s immune system and induces strong anti-tumoural immune responses. The immune response raised against tumour-associated antigens can last long after the immune system has cleared the virus.


Oncolytic viruses could turn out to be the most important advance in cancer treatment for 30 years. Many oncolytic viruses have completed successful Phase I and safety data is looking good, while results from various completed Phase II confirm the presence of virus replication in tumour sites.

It is my firm belief that oncolytic viruses could be beneficial for patients suffering from NET. Over the last 5-6 years we have systematically developed an oncolytic adenovirus that selectively replicates in and kills cells of neuroendocrine origin.

After several years of research and peer reviewed publication, our oncolytic virus was ready to enter clinical phase. However we didn’t have enough funds to do it. The Swedish government has a policy of not investing in clinical trials in humans. Our research grants were not sufficient to cover the costs of clinical trials and since we have openly published our data, we were unable to patent our work, so no pharmaceutical companies were interested in investing in the virus.

The idea of crowdfunding came from author and journalist Alexander Masters. He was looking for new treatments for his friend Dido, who was diagnosed with NET. I was anxious at first, since the concept of crowdsourcing was very new. I found it difficult to understand how it would work. However we received great help and support from many people: Dominic Nutt, journalist and social media campaigner; Liz Scarf, the social media campaigner who was coordinating the websites (entirely for free); Glenda Cooper, a journalist, and many others. They became the ‘core’ of what has become the iCANCER campaign.

The public response has been amazing. We have received many emails, letter and phone calls from people interested not only in donating money to support our project but also willing to help with crowdfunding, sharing tips and suggestions on how to make the campaign more efficient. By continuing our work with the campaign, we strongly hope to be able to start clinical trials by the end of this year.

Aside from the funding promise, the campaign has given us the opportunity to directly engage with patients and it has been extremely inspiring and useful to learn about the cancer disease from their perspectives. Thanks to their support, we are highly motivated to continue our work until we reach our goal.

Far from being a one off, I see our funding process as a potential alternative model for funding clinical trials. The scientific conferences that I participate in are mainly focused on results, progress and new ideas within preclinical research. While these are all important, there are only limited discussions about the process of translating the results from research into clinics and the problems related to this process.

At TEDMEDLive Imperial I don’t want to present my research results in detail; they have been published and are easy to access. I wish to share the story of how my research has been saved by a crowdfunding campaign and how we can change the way treatments are developed. At TEDMEDLive I will have a chance to describe not only what I know, but what I believe in and what I stand for. This is quite a unique opportunity for me as a scientist.

I hope that my talk will spark discussions around the hurdles we face today during the drug development process and the difficulties facing preclinical research entering into clinical stages. I would also like to raise the question of involving the taxpayer in decisions about how its money is being spent.

Looking forward, I hope our research will improve the clinical outcome for cancer patients with NET and demonstrate an alternative method for funding clinical trials. While the first can only be achieved in the lab, the second aim requires progressive stages like TEDMEDLive to create lively discussion about new ideas in science and research.


See Justyna speak live on April 21 at TEDMEDLive Imperial by registering for tickets here.