7 Jun 2021

Sir Bill Denny reflects on four decades researching cancer drugs

8:57 pm on 7 June 2021

Bill Denny has been made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to medical research.

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Sir Bill Denny is director of the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre at the University of Auckland. Photo: Auckland University

He was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004.

Sir Bill has been at the forefront of cancer drug research for more than 40 years, and is director of the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre at the University of Auckland.

Over that time he has led teams to take 15 cancer drugs to clinical trials, and in some cases application.

"It is a long road. Over the time we've developed about 15 new drugs into clinical trials around the world and the timeframes for those vary hugely.

"It's probably on average from concept to first clinical trial 15 years, sometimes, you've almost forgotten what you've started when you finally get a drug into the clinic."

Sir Bill said he was surprised to learn he would be made a knight.

"It's representative of a large number of other people because really, work like this is all about co-operation," he said.

He has had many highlights during his career.

"The first time any drug reaches a patient is a memorable moment. I think over the years, the fact that we've been working on some areas that have been quite difficult and have been the first to do that," Sir Bill said.

"The idea of developing irreversible inhibitors that were reversible only when they're bound to their particular target has been taken up around the world. Probably it's the way of that influencing the rest of the community that has been one of the best things we've done."

Additional research at the centre led to tuberculosis drug in 2015 and a Leishmaniasis drug in 2017. Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease that is found in parts of the tropics, subtropics, and southern Europe.

As part of the development of these drugs, he has been a co-founding scientist with Proacta Therapeutics in San Diego and Pathway Therapeutics in San Francisco, and has worked with the Global Alliance for TB and the Geneva-based Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

He co-founded Kea Therapeutics in 2018, which is developing a range of anaesthetics and analgesics to reduce the reliance on opioids.

He has authored more than 700 publications and is a co-inventor on close to 70 US patents.

Sir Bill was appointed to the American Chemical Society Medicinal Chemistry Hall of Fame in 2016.

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