“Did you know that more than 70 percent of cancer patient deaths are caused not by the cancer itself, but by the side effects of chemotherapy?” With this shocking statistic just minutes into the presentation of his product, Andrei Garazha has the undivided attention of the conference room.

Garazha, head of IT at the First Oncological Scientific and Consultation Centre (PONKC), is presenting Oncofinder, a system for personalizing chemotherapy for cancer patients based on a molecular analysis of their cancer.

Andrei Garazha presenting his company's Oncofinder system at Skolkovo on Wednesday. Photo: Sk.ru

Currently, he continues, it is the doctor who decides which treatment to give the patient, from a choice of 250 different chemotherapy drugs.

“The cancer may look the same to the doctor, may seem similar to another case they have treated successfully, but molecularly it may be very different,” says Garazha. With the best drug for their particular cancer – as determined by Oncofinder – even in incurable cases, patients can live years longer, he says.

Garazha is not pitching to potential investors at a startup event, but presenting his project to regional officials responsible for innovation as part of a conference at the Skolkovo Foundation devoted to efficient innovation ecosystems. The Oncofinder system devised by PONKC, a Skolkovo resident since 2012, is one of three projects being presented to the officials as examples of success stories.

Unexpectedly, one of the officials in the audience stands up.

“I don’t have a question,” she says. “It’s more of a proposal. Andrei, let’s exchange contacts, come and meet our regional health ministry, and maybe we can use your project.”

The spontaneous official in the audience is Violetta Komissarova, head of the department for innovations and entrepreneurship of the Kaluga region’s ministry of industry.

The Kaluga region is something of a poster child for Russia’s regions, having become known as a haven for foreign investors under regional governor Anatoly Artamonov, renowned for his accessibility to officials and investors alike.   

“Our governor and we have the following position: as soon as we see any project that coincides with our interests, that could benefit us on a social level, we have to at least ensure it is presented and discussed in our region,” Komissarova told Sk.ru after the conference. “And if everyone agrees, we have to try to implement it, at least as a pilot scheme. So I hope they [PONKC] will come to us with a representative of Skolkovo, and we’ll get together our medics, oncologists and representatives of the Health Ministry and discuss its possibilities.”

Violetta Komissarova, a representative of the Kaluga region, takes to the microphone at Wednesday's event. Photo: Sk.ru

After all, cancer is, in Komissarova’s words, “a problem that we can’t avoid.”

“Kaluga was one of the regions that suffered as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,” she said. “We have a federal radiology centre in the [Kaluga region] city of Obninsk, a lot of experimental medicine and innovative developments happen there, it’s basically an innovative nucleus.”

But far from all officials and regions have proved so open to innovation in the past, said Garazha, describing state bureaucracy as one of the obstacles his company had to overcome, along with unprogressive attitudes among health professionals.

“Medicine is a conservative area,” said Garazha. “Many doctors working now were educated 30 or 40 years ago. The methods weren’t available then, and this holds us back at every level. Or sometimes they say other medications than the one prescribed aren’t available anyway, so what’s the point in using our system to determine the best one? Well, OK, but what if the patient wants to sell everything they have and go abroad for treatment?”

This description of resistance to the system also struck a chord with Komissarova, she said.

“It was the first I’d heard about that project, but I really liked the systematic approach, and most importantly, it identified a major problem of inertia in the prescription of medicine. I have personal experience of this, having undergone treatment for cancer myself,” she told Sk.ru.

Asked whether Kaluga would face the problem cited by Garazha of local health authorities not having access to the best drug for the patient, Komissarova was cautiously optimistic that her region could rise to the challenge, pointing out that it is home to an innovative cluster of biopharmaceutical and medical companies, as well as two major cancer centres.

“We have a lot of pharmaceutical investors in the Kaluga region now, so we’ll see what is lacking. But I talked to him [Garazha] about what kind of tumours they analyse, and we have a lot of experience in that area – and quite successful,” she said.

Skolkovo senior vice president Alexander Chernov hailed the impromptu match, jokingly announcing to Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, who arrived shortly afterwards to address the regional officials, that “we’ve married off one of our biomedicine startups with the Kaluga region here today.”

Komissarova and Garazha discuss possible cooperation after the presentation of Oncofinder. Photo: Sk.ru

Currently, some cancer patients in Russia – where an average of 300,000 people die from cancer a year – seek treatment abroad. Efforts are being made to improve both treatment and palliative care after a series of suicides of cancer patients rocked the country in recent years.

A major part of the work of Skolkovo’s biomedicine cluster is devoted to fighting cancer: more than 60 startups within the cluster are devoted to cancer research, working on aspects ranging from testing and treatment to the development of medical equipment, and the foundation recently launched its own Cancer Centre of Excellence to unite their efforts.

With new developments like Oncofinder and better access to drugs, and – just as crucially – with innovative-minded officials like Komissarova keen to implement the latest technology available to them in their regions, scientists hope for a day when Russian cancer patients will have access to treatment that is second to none.