Professor Veronica James’s quest to shield others

  • Olga Galacho
  • From: Herald Sun
  • January 06, 2010 12:00AM

PROFESSOR Veronica James, the developer of a breast cancer test, bought two tickets in last Saturday’s $30 million Tattslotto draw hoping to win enough to buy back her invention.

Veronica James

Prof Veronica James won legal case against biotech company Fermiscan in relation to a breast cancer diagnostic technique. Picture: Stephen Cooper The Daily Telegraph

The test the award-winning scientist discovered has been in limbo in a striken company called Fermiscan, which went into voluntary administration in November after having burned through more cash in a few years than the total of Saturday’s Tatts prize pool.

Despite being an eminent mathematician, the sharp-witted 70-year-old was as unlucky with the lottery numbers she picked as she was with her choice of investors six years ago when she sold her technology to Fermiscan for the cost of her patent.

At the time, she believed delivering the technology that can detect molecular changes in the hair of breast cancer patients to a bunch of businessmen would help to speed up its availability to the health sector and hopefully save lives.
She has never wanted to profit from the test personally, believing that it should be made available for free to all women because no woman should ever have to pay to discover if they have breast cancer.

More than 12,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Australian women each year. One in nine women will develop the disease. Each year, 2700 of those women will die of breast cancer.

According to reports in medical journals before Prof James parted with her technology, her tests detected very early stage cancer that sometimes took years to be picked up by mammograms.

But instead of working with Prof James to speed up development of the non-invasive diagnostic tool, the company dragged the penniless Queensland scientist through the courts three times as it attempted to seize more rights over her research than was justified.

Fortunately, Fermiscan’s claims were dismissed by one judge after another.

Now that Fermiscan has hit the wall and the professors discovery is up for sale, she is scrambling to raise the money to get it back by today.

Ironically, if the 796,829 lucky Tatts ticket holders on Saturday night donated just $2 of their winnings each to Prof James, she would probably manage to reclaim her test and continue to offer hope to millions of women with early stage breast cancer.

Prof James, who is attached to Canberra’s Australian National University, discovered in 1996 that when she shone a finely focussed X-ray beam onto samples of head and pubic hair from cancer patients, the image showed a different structure to that of samples from healthy women.

Although the technology is yet to be tested in clinical trials, of 3500 samples the professor has screened, not one false negative has emerged, she says.

Prof James had believed when she did the deal with Fermiscan founder Leon Carr that she would manage ongoing research and if  the company was unable to commercialise the test within three years, the intellectual property would revert back to her.

But after having sidelined Prof James from the outset and effectively gagged her through the series of court cases, Fermiscan fell on its own sword and suffered the double humiliation of not being able to  replicate the scientist’s success claims with its own testing of the technology.

Today is the deadline for bidders to make an offer for Fermiscan’s assets.

It has less than $500,000 in the bank and outstanding loans and investments of $57 million, which the administrators, Woodgate & Co, believe are likely to realise a nominal sum, if at all, plus it owes Prof James $750,000 in legal costs.

If you were one of the thousands of investors who had poured your money into the company in the three short years that it was listed on the stock exchange, you would have to wonder where the tens of millions of dollars went.

It is just four weeks since the administrators opened the tendering process and it beggars belief that apart from having already been rushed, the sale should be held bang, smack in the middle of the Christmas holiday season.

Already eight potential buyers have emerged, but none of them possess Prof James’s expertise, so the chances that they will succeed in making the technology work are already diminished.

Despite what appears to be keen interest in the assets, the corporate watchdog, ASIC, should consider ordering the deadline to be moved to a date when business trading normalises.

Apart from allowing the tendering process to appear more transparent, such an extension would give Prof James a chance to approach potential philanthropists back at their desks after the holiday break.

One supporter who has come to her aid, Marten Matthews, of Broome pearl company The Courthouse Collection, is convinced that in Prof James’s hands, the test will help to prevent the premature death of women.

Each day that Veronica is prevented from conducting the tests, potentially hundreds of women with breast cancer are not being alerted early enough to cheat fate.

What she needs now is a knight in shining armour, not to save herself, but to shield all the women of the world from a deadly disease, he says.

Mr Matthews and his jewellery designer wife Bridget Liddell have donated a percentage of their sales to good causes for years, including the John Waluboine Childrens Institute in the Congo, UNICEF and Medecins Sans Frontieres Australia, in addition to Prof James’s research.

The scientist, too, has dedicated years to pro-bono work to help those less fortunate.

For 15 years until 2000 she organised an annual science camp for hearing impaired children.

The event, now run from the medical faculty of Sydney University as the Veronica James Science Challenge, took her name in honour of the massive effort she contributed to the cause.

For her work with more than 1000 students Prof James received an Order of Australia award.

The occasion was a far cry from the tactics she had to endure at the hands of Fermiscan years later, including having her home raided and personal documents seized as the company prepared its first legal action against her.

In subsequent court cases, Fermiscan argued that different research the scientist was conducting with skin and nail samples to diagnose prostate and bowel cancer also belonged to the company, but the court disagreed.

In November, when Fermiscan lost its appeal against a NSW Supreme Court decision in Prof James’s favour, her lawyer, Jane Owen of Sydney firm Middletons, said the result was a vindication of the scientist’s accomplishments and her right to continue researching in her highly specialised field.

Prof James is a highly respected scientist and the leading Australian expert in use of fibre diffraction analysis of biological materials, Ms Owen said.

The judgment also enshrines a freedom of legitimate expression of scientific views in an appropriate scientific context without fear of recourse from companies who may take offence at the views.

This is clearly important for the advance of science – to stimulate a climate where improvements on current science can be publicised without fear of reproach.”

When I first spoke to Prof James last June, the fear in her voice was palpable.

She told me: “Every time I hear a car pull up outside, I worry it’s going to be another subpoena. I just couldn’t go on if I had to go to court one more time. Please don’t ask me any questions.”

Well, she was dragged back to court one more time. And again, she emerged triumphant and finally regained her courage.

How many times does David have to slay Goliath before people back a fearless victor?

Olga Galacho is a Herald Sun business journalist.

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