Researchers from the University of Montreal and a Canadian pharmaceutical company are launching a clinical trial that aims to treat a form of leukemia by combining a common antiviral drug and standard chemotherapy drugs.

After promising results from a 2009 trial that treated 11 acute myeloid leukemia patients with the common antiviral drug Ribavirin, Dr. Katherine Borden was preparing to start a second clinical trial that combined Ribavirin with low doses of standard chemotherapy drugs.

Her research ran into a roadblock, however, when she found out she couldn’t get access to Ribavirin – which was being bought and manufactured out of the U.S.

“As researchers you can imagine this was a big problem,” she told Canada AM on Thursday.

Then, through a chance meeting with Pharmascience founder Morris Goodman, her research turned around.

After hearing about Borden’s research and the need for a reliable and inexpensive source of Ribavirin, Goodman offered to have Montreal-based Pharmascience produce and supply the drug for free.

“He totally came through,” Borden said.

Goodman said he had read the results of the initial 2009 trial and he knew he wanted to help.

“When Kathy mentioned to me that she was getting some results with this drug I figured ‘There’s nothing to lose, let’s try it. If we don’t try it, we’ll never find anything that’s going to work,’” he said.

A second trial combining Ribiviran with standard chemo drugs is starting to show “dramatic responses,” Borden said.

One of the trial participants had leukemia and has gone into remission for two years, she said, noting that not all of the trial participants respond in the same way. “We have a lot more work to do.”

Borden is working on another clinical trial with the help of Pharmascience chemists. This third clinical trial will examine ways to overcome the problem of drug resistance.

Borden said Ribavirin works by suppressing activity of the eIF4e gene, which becomes overactive in 30 per cent of cancer types and overproduces a protein that can prompt a cell to turn cancerous.

Ribavirin is a readily available drug and is commonly used to treat hepatitis C.