A pioneering professor has used his retirement to set up a start-up that “matchmakes” people suffering from rare diseases with researchers looking to run clinical trials.
Andy Hall is an Emeritus professor at Newcastle University, having formerly headed up the Northern Centre for Cancer Research there.
Over a lengthy career Andy was involved in obtaining research funding worth over £21m, and he has specialised in looking for cures to the rarest childhood cancers.
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Two years ago, with a handful of colleagues, he set up RareCan – a start-up designed to make it easier for those who wish to to take part in clinical trials.
After training as a medic in Newcastle, he worked treating cancer patients on the front line, but when he made the switch to research he never looked back.
He said: “I thought I was going to do six months of research, but I never quite got back to the patients because I got tied up with that research – and particularly with why treatment sometimes just doesn’t work.”
He has been particularly interested in why this happens in childhood leukaemia.
After retiring from Newcastle University in 2016, he began casting around for new projects.
Prof Hall – who is 66 and lives in Hexham – said: “I left the university six years ago, but I felt I still had quite a lot of petrol in the tank when it came to doing new things.
“One of things I was interested in is that you get a lot of people who are ill with quite rare diseases – cancer in my cases – who are keen to be part of research. And on the other side of the equation there are people who are interested in doing research with them.
“But these people can’t always find each other.
“RareCan is a question of putting those patients in front of those researchers.”
And now – along with colleagues Piers Kotting, Simon Allocca and Claire Heron – the professor has been nominated for a gong at this year’s Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
The team are up for a “Start-up entrepreneur of the year” prize for the North East region.
Prof Hall explained how RareCan works. He said: “We have had people say it’s like a dating matchmaker and in a way it is. It uses the power of the internet to bring people together
“In the North East you might have two people with any particular rare disease but around the country there could be thirty or forty.”
He said being able to find bigger cohorts of people with any given disease made life far easier for budding researchers.
“The key is getting people signed up. We have around 300 so far and a healthy interest from researchers,” he said.
“They’ve been very enthusiastic about this. In truth it’s the people who want to do trials who come to us, so it makes sense.
“Our feedback is that people do feel listened to.
“It’s lonely having a serious illness full stop, but particularly so if you have a rare illness. In that scenario I think this would be very helpful.”
He explained that the aim of RareCan was to provide “something extra” and “absolutely not to displace the work that charities do”.
As an example of the difference he thinks RareCan might make, Prof Hall recalled his time heading up cancer research at Newcastle Uni. He said: “I would have PhD students come to say they had a really interesting idea for some rare disease, but it was hard to find enough people to trial anything.
“Now researchers can get in touch with RareCan and we can help find people for a given project.”
The professor was keen to highlight the collective work that had gone into creating the site. He said: “We have managed to get together a fantastic group of people. It’s always a team effort.”
RareCan is actually Prof Hall’s second foray into using the internet to help patients. Previously he set up a site called Give My Sample, which he said was “a much more rough and ready idea”.
He said the aim of that site was to give people the unbiased, independent information they need to make a decision about taking part in medical research by giving details of what that involves.
“Quite often I came across people who didn’t really know what a sample was and what giving a sample for medical research involved,” he said. “It was a way of just spelling out the things that someone might need to know. It’s very basic information with no agenda at all.”
To find out more visit RareCan.com. The Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2021 winners will be announced on November 22.
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