The incredible story behind the lifesaving cancer drug olaparib

28th September 2019

To date, the cancer drug olaparib has been used to treat 40,000 patients around the world with certain ovarian, breast, pancreatic and prostate cancers. It's a truly lifesaving cancer treatment, one that exists thanks to the kindness and generosity of supporters like you. This is the incredible story of that journey.

Back in 1994 Worldwide Cancer Research first met Steve Jackson, a young enthusiastic professor at Cambridge University. Steve had a problem that he hoped the charity might be able to solve — his current research funding wouldn’t stretch to allow him to pursue an intriguing new avenue, and he had heard that the team at Worldwide Cancer Research were looking for bright, pioneering ideas that could lay the foundations for new cancer cures in the future.

Steve needed to find someone who would invest in him and Worldwide Cancer Research’s focus on discovery research sounded like the perfect fit for his work. So, he put pen to paper, and after weeks of suspense and several rigorous rounds of review by some of the world’s best scientists, a decision was made. Steve’s idea was going to be funded.

From an innovative idea to a potential new cancer cure.

Steve started studying how certain proteins in our cells fix DNA damage. Steve knew DNA is fragile and can break easily. The repair process (called DNA repair) is essential to keep our cells happy and healthy.

As his idea began to grow, Worldwide Cancer Research awarded Steve funds for an extra three projects. Finally, in 1997, Steve had a Eureka moment —that DNA repair deficiencies represented an Achilles heel for certain cancers that could potentially be exploited. 

But even with a potential new cancer treatment, no pharmaceutical companies were showing any interest. This left Steve with no other option but to set up a start-up company of his own, called KuDOS.

KuDOS would go on to be the first stepping stone towards a promising new drug based on Steve's research. And after several years of development, testing and late nights in the lab, he and his team landed on a drug called olaparib.

KuDOS had neither the money nor the resources to run the type of large, complex clinical trial that would be needed to approve the drug for use in patients, so Steve decided to sell it, and KuDOS, to the global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, to guarantee a future for olaparib. 

The decision paid off, as eight years later olaparib was finally approved in both the EU and US to treat patients with certain types of advanced ovarian cancer. And the success of the drug doesn't stop there, as new opportunities continue to emerge. Olaparib is also being tested in patients with certain types of pancreatic, prostate and breast cancer, with promising results. In the US, olaparib has already also been approved for the treatment of these cancers, whilst a decision of approval is pending in the UK. 

Meet the grandmother whose life was saved by olaparib.

Whilst Steve and his team were tirelessly working on their new drug, Sandy was devastated to be diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. And after seven years of treatment, her cancer stopped responding to chemotherapy and had spread into her stomach.

Sandy waited for the inevitable – to be told that there was nothing more that could be done. Instead, her oncologist said that there was one more thing that they could try. It was a clinical trial for olaparib.

Incredibly the treatment worked, and Sandy remains completely cancer-free to this day. Watch the moving moment when Sandy met Steve, the scientist who saved her life:

Further reading

Research News Kebs Hodivala-Dilke

Developing new ways to treat lung cancer

Scientists are using a newly discovered drug to increase the blood flow to the tumours to help other treatments such as chemo and immunotherapy attack the heart of the tumour.

28 September 2019

Cancer explained

What is olaparib?

Olaparib is the first in a new type of targeted cancer drug called a PARP inhibitor. The drug was developed thanks to pioneering research made possible by people just like you.

01 August 2020

Thought bubble with question mark on yellow background
Cancer explained

What causes cancer?

Cancer is caused by a complex mixture of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. But what increases your risk of cancer?

20 August 2021


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