There's a chicken-or-egg problem stifling the success of clinical trials. First, finding a research trial can be a hard-to-solve puzzle for patients and doctors seeking other treatment options. And because the search is such a challenge many potentially life-improving – if not life-saving - medical trials go unused, often scrapped.
No patients; no clinical trial. No clinical trial; no info gleaned about a new drug or device that could make a big difference in the life of someone with cancer, diabetes, paralysis or any number of diseases, illnesses or impairments.
Seeing the disconnect not only in their professional lives but through trying personal experience led Stephen Goldner and David Fuehrer to launch CureLauncher. The Bloomfield Hills startup connects patients – or their doctors and nurses – with partner hospitals, universities and pharmaceutical companies looking for subjects for their medical trials. And they do it free-of-charge. It's a connection that can bring not only hope to patients but, in some cases, life.
"Unfortunately most people don't know anything about the clinical trials resource … It's an unexplored space," says Fuehrer, the company's president. "CureLauncher is the first to explore this space and there is clearly a need."
Fuehrer is a two-time cancer survivor and longtime pharmaceutical company consultant whose own father found out about a potentially beneficial medical trial for cancer too late.
"People contact us and say, 'my doctor told me there was nothing else available. My doctor told me to go home and get my affairs in order,' " he says. "We know there may be other options for them, and we walk them through that.
"You have to invest the time to find out what's out there … For a physician it can be too time-consuming. Their time is taken up with patients and appointments and running their practice," says Fuehrer. "For patients it's just too much."
The main place to go for such info is a government website that's often out-dated, written in medical jargon and hard to navigate given the thousands of trials available.
CureLauncher's founders saw a better way and designed software and a website that boils down the hard-to-decipher data so that it's easier to pair patients with a research trial that could help them. By phone, online chat or email, CureLauncher will find a clinical trial that best fits the needs of a patient. It also strikes up partnerships with medical researchers in need of patients. Nearly half of the nation's 10,000 clinical trials enroll zero or only one patient, Fuehrer says. CureLauncher helps avoid the inefficient "needle in a haystack" approach of researchers scouring records for patients.
CureLauncher is believed to be the first service of its kind, and the company is already hearing from patients outside the U.S. and exploring the potential of expansion outside the country.
In its first eighteen months the company, which employs nearly 25 people, has turned the heads of investors, business accelerators and others looking to support promising, innovative startups. More importantly it's gotten the attention of patients, physicians and nurses.
"It's a business with a purpose. Not only is it a good Michigan story, it's a good national helping people story. We're supporting people from across the country," says Fuehrer. "We are partnering with the largest global pharmaceutical companies," he adds, as well as the government, two local hospitals, a national stroke association. More partnerships are forming.
Furthermore, later this month CureLauncher will announce a partnership with a major patient support charity, one that helped Fuehrer through his cancer battles.
The company is not giving a promise that a life will be saved but "it's another option. It's hope. It's more time. It's more than that sometimes," says Fuehrer.
There are some 10,000 clinical trials underway at anytime in the U.S., but only about half will find enough patients to proceed. CureLauncher's 20 or so "relationship managers" will identify medical research trials, explain them, make appointments and even offer comfort to patients going through the process.
"This is such an interesting space because nobody has really looked at it from the patient side before," says Fuehrer. "What we want to do is build awareness of what's out there."
Fuehrer's experience in the medical field goes back many years, but it was his own diagnosis of cancer (twice) followed by the death of his father from cancer that inspires him. He realized too late that there might have been a clinical trial to help his dad and that convinced him to start what he sees as a golden opportunity to build a livelihood rooted in helping people.
"My personal mission is that nobody who has been diagnosed should have to wonder where to look for treatments, where to find some hope that there is something out there," he says.
As a former forensic toxicologist and medical lawyer who has gotten 230 drugs and medical devices approved for use, Goldner, the chairman and CEO of CureLauncher, immediately saw the potential of clinical trials for patients in need.
He also saw how often promising trials were left wanting for patients.
The two got to know one another while working on a project in 2012, six months after Fuehrer's father died. Their mutual experiences got the idea for CureLauncher going.
"When I met Steve I knew I had to leave what I was doing. He really knew more people could be helped," says Fuehrer.
And Fuehrer knew that patients could do better than his father had. "During my father's treatments it was never brought up that a clinical trial might help him...He was only offered the option of a trial when his treatment stopped working and then it was too late."
"What I love seeing, as a survivor, is the information being made available to patients. Now things are more patient focused, and I like to believe that CureLauncher is a part of this bigger movement to empower patients," he explains. "It's a feeling I can't describe. To hear from people saying 'thank you for giving me a chance. Thank you for giving my husband more time...'"
Fuehrer never finishes his sentence. He's hoping the success of his company will do that for him.
Kim North Shine is a freelance writer and Development News Editor for Metromode.
All photos by David Lewinski Photography