Drugs to treat female and paediatric cancers are the focus of niche pharmaceutical company Shorla Pharma, which was set up by Orlaith Ryan and Sharon Cunningham in 2018. Ryan has a background in pharmaceutical product development, regulation and compliance while Sharon Cunningham's experience is in corporate finance, accounting and fundraising. The founders met when they worked together at EirGen Pharma.
Shorla is addressing a need in the oncology space for treatments that overcome difficulties with how some cancer drugs are administered. For example, children on certain types of medication can find it very difficult to physically swallow the prescribed tablet so parents end up opening the capsules and mixing the contents into a drink to get the child to take it. This is far from ideal and is one of the first problems being addressed by the Clonmel-based startup which expects to have its initial products ready for launch in 2021.
Shorla’s founders are not trying to develop new cancer-busting drugs from scratch. Rather they are taking treatments and active substances already proven to be safe and effective and using Ryan’s pharma development expertise to improve them and make them more user friendly. “We have been working on our business idea for two years and have developed a pipeline of four products to start with and each is designed to solve a specific problem in a clinical setting such as age appropriate formulations,” Ryan says.
Children’s cancer drug
In the case of the children’s cancer drug, Shorla has reworked the active ingredients to get rid of the capsule and replace it with a palatable oral solution suitable for multidosing. It will be used to treat solid tumours in children aged three and upwards. The company’s second product is a reworking of an injectable drug for breast and ovarian cancer to make it more stable and less time sensitive. The existing version has to be made up and administered immediately, which creates logistical pressures for hard-pressed clinicians.
"We're very familiar with the oncology world and have worked very closely with clinicians all over the world to identify where the biggest needs are," says Ryan. "Our R&D will all be directed from Ireland and the IP will reside here. Our aim is to build a core technical team of around 14 highly skilled people by 2021. We believe the opportunity to work in an innovative environment will be very attractive to scientists who want a bigger challenge than they might normally get in a more narrowly defined area with one of the big pharma companies."
Shorla's revenue stream is direct sales and its key target audience are prescribing oncologists worldwide
Depending on the product, Shorla will work with different labs and manufacturers to formulate and make its products. “Different labs have expertise in different areas so we will be choosing the most suitable,” Cunningham says. “The manufacturing is also specialised and has to be fulfilled at accredited facilities so while we would like to have the products made in Ireland that’s not possible or cost effective at this point.”
Personal and private investment in the business to date has been roughly €2 million and the founders supported themselves during the planning stages by doing consultancy assignments. The company has received about €50,000 from Local Enterprise Office Tipperary and is currently in fundraising mode. Its revenue stream is direct sales and its key target audience are prescribing oncologists worldwide.
Shorla is still in its prelaunch R&D phase but its first two products have already been presented to the FDA in the US for approval with the rest to follow. “Our aim is to put patients’ needs at the heart of our innovation and to deliver more effective, less toxic drugs that will ultimately enhance outcomes,” says Cunningham. “The fact that our products are superior to what’s on the market is where the conversation starts with oncologists, many of whom already know about and support what we’re doing.”