National Portrait - Richard Furneaux, pioneering chemist

Carbohydrate chemist Richard Furneaux led only the second Kiwi team to get a drug to market.
Cameron Burnell/stuff

Carbohydrate chemist Richard Furneaux led only the second Kiwi team to get a drug to market.

When he got the news, Professor Richard Furneaux took two glasses and a bottle of Macallan single malt into his colleague Peter Tyler's office. It was only lunchtime but no-one cared. 

You don't become only the second Kiwi team to get a drug to market and not celebrate.

But it wasn't accompanied by the fanfare you might expect. More than 20 years in the making, Mundesine – a drug to combat T-cell lymphoma – was earlier eclipsed by another drug using a similar mechanism, stymying its mass-market release. The April announcement approved Mundesine only for Japan, for patients whose blood cancer was resistant or relapsed.

It's a reminder of just how risky biotech research is. But Furneaux has no regrets about devoting his past two decades to pharmaceutical research – far from it. He could have worked in agrichemicals, industrial polymers, food science or dietary supplements. But he argues they have similar risks and much lesser rewards.

"Can you get up each day knowing that your challenge is to make a fluffier croissant?... You think how unempowered you feel when a relative dies of cancer. There is absolutely nothing you can do – you need to have started 20 years before. So we are starting 20 years before. We're actually trying to make that difference."

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At 67, the chemist, professor and head of Victoria University's Ferrier Research Institute has just won the KiwiNet supreme award for research commercialisation, capping off a glittering career. The bosses estimate Furneaux has generated about $80 million in revenue over the past 11 years, with Glycosyn – the manufacturing facility he helped start – and various drug deals.

So presumably he'll be taking his GoldCard and retiring to his beloved Shannon golf course, safe in the knowledge he's achieved something most scientists only dream of. Not likely. There's still far too much going on – a collaboration with the Malaghan Institute to combat cancer using the body's own immune system; an antiviral against ebola and zika; a way to grow difficult-to-produce natural substances in the lab.

This, he says, is quite simply the best game in town.

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Furneaux started early. The son of Taubmans' chief paint chemist, he was usually to be found in the makeshift lab his father built in their Strathmore basement, next to Wellington's airport. He was captivated by chemistry's power of transformation. The idea you could take caustic soda and aluminium powder and make something entirely different – hydrogen.

It was excellent for floating balloons heavenward. He'd add tinfoil streamers to track their ascent. Unfortunately, the airport radar tracked them too. "I may have closed the airport," he says, with a sorry-not-sorry laugh. Don't put that, he backtracks – they might still arrest me.

Getting down and dirty with chemicals inspired Furneaux's working life. The inability of today's cotton wool kids to actually play with chemicals is one of many things Furneaux thinks has gone wrong with science in New Zealand.

"That's what motivates kids, makes them get it. Chemistry is not read in books, it's a practical subject."

When Furneaux left Wellington in the 1970s for his post-doc in America, the capital was a shut-at-5pm kind of town. No matter – it was always his dream to do globally competitive science from his hometown, so he could look after his parents as they aged and get to know his grandchildren when they arrived.

It didn't occur to him to worry it might be hard to do innovative science from the bottom of the world. He's a self-confessed "stubborn kind of bastard" and just made it happen. 

On returning to New Zealand in 1980 to join the Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR), he brought his American science project – looking for uses for cellulose building blocks. He reckoned one looked similar to a known herbicide, so roped in mate Peter Tyler to investigate. By 1984 and page nine of his lab book, Tyler had synthesised a compound that would kill a hectare of plants with a single gram.

There were business class flights to England, mega-deals and suddenly the two 30-somethings from Wellington were genuine inventors.

Furneaux is a socialist at heart and says it's critical to his team's success – they outperformed top British chemists because everyone shared in the glory and benefits.

Furneaux's 20-year collaboration with New York biologist Vern Schramm has been a key part of his career. PHOTO: MAARTEN HOLL/STUFF

Then there was the ongoing collaboration with biologist Vern Schramm at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Furneaux's visitor sticker is taped to his Lower Hutt office wall, beside posters pilfered from gigs of his favourite Indie musicians – Tiny Ruins, Neil Young, Rickie Lee Jones.

It started in 1994, when Schramm drew a molecule – later to become Mundesine – on a bar napkin. Can you make it, he asked. Top American chemists had dismissed it as too hard. Not so, said Peter Tyler. It only took a few years to make and 23 to get to market.

The DSIR days were the halcyon times of science funding, when funders also employed – and had personal relationships with – the scientists. Today's system of writing endless grant bids, "throwing them over the fence" to MBIE and getting 90 per cent binned with negligible feedback, is "just the stupidest way of communicating I have ever seen anyone invent".

"Why would you have people have that high fail rates? It's just a pointless bloody circus. It's also turned us into liars. A huge amount of effort goes into polishing the brasswork."

Kiwi science is spectacular in spite of the rubbish funding system, and the growth of private investors holds hope, Furneaux says. The Ferrier-Malaghan joint venture Avalia Immunotherapies, which is planning a cervical cancer vaccine trial, has raised $1 million in private investment. For too long we've expected comfortable companies to change from lap cats to tigers and back innovation, instead of investing in startups with big ideas, Furneaux says.

He doesn't get into the lab much these days. But he's still doing science, helping his 30 chemists and 12 PhD students solve their own problems – a skill he learned as a young man, working on Youthline predecessor Teen-Aid.

And he still spent his Christmas holidays learning about bees that make natural polymers, so he could give a research colleague informed advice.

"You have a reason for reading, a reason for wanting to know. Then you can use that information to help somebody. So my knowledge is then being played out in reality both by a CEO of a company and an investor and a scientist. Man is that cool."

 - Stuff

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