"I don't know how many people you've lost to cancer, but it's too damn many," says Bill Buckley.
Over the past four years, the 76-year-old Buckley has thrown much of his wealth - recently estimated by the NBR Rich List at $110 million - into creating a new company, Neutron Therapeutics, which aims to treat deadly tumours using Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT). In other words, a neutron beam that zaps a tumour cell-by-cell.
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It's a technology that could offer new hope for those who have been told they have terminal cancer, especially in the head and neck - and it's gone way beyond the white-boarding stage.
Neutron Therapeutics has just closed the first major sale of its US$20m BNCT Suite, to Tokushukai Medical Group, the largest private hospital chain in Japan. It's hoped that the Kiwi-made cancer-fighting machine will be up and running by late next year.
A prototype BNCT Suite, designed by the Buckley-owned Neutron Therapeutics in Massachusetts and built by the (also 100 per cent Buckley-owned) Buckley Systems in Mt Wellington is already installed and being tested at Helsinki University Hospital in Finland, with hopes that the first clinical patient treatment will begin early next year.
Buckley, who has already briefed oncology experts at the Auckland District Health Board, hopes to meet Ministry of Health officials over the next few weeks, and aims to follow that up with a meeting with Health Minister David Clark (a spokesman for Clark's office said the minister would wait for a briefing from the Ministry of Health before commenting).
Last month, the government earmarked $25m to buy 12 new linear accelerator (linac) machines for the regions over the next three years as part of a wider allocation of $60m for new cancer-fighting measures, in part to eliminate the so-called "postcode" lottery for treatment. Linac - the most commonly used particle accelerator - delivers high-energy x-rays or electrons to the region of the patient's tumour.
Buckley says he hopes the government will adopt his BNCT Suite too. He says his machine's capacity to see a patient an hour (including 20 minutes in front of its beam) compared with one patient every 30 hours for more traditional setups, means people could fly in from a region to get treated in Auckland, then fly back in much less time. However, he also stresses that he's looking for BNCT to complement rather than replace existing treatments. "I don't think anything's the golden bullet for getting rid of cancer. Those [traditional] radiation machines will still have a place," he says.
Buckley made his fortune from Buckley Systems Limited (BSL), his Mt Wellington company established in 1986, which now employs more than 300 people to create high-precision magnets and other components for clients in the semiconductor, flat panel display and medical space.
In turn, those clients use the machines to manufacture everything from semiconductors (aka "silicon chips"), to high-definition TVs, to high-tech medical gear.
Like Rocket Lab's Peter Beck, Buckley is a self-taught engineer (if these days surrounded by a staff of PhDs and medical physicists, and these days an honorary IPENZ Fellow) who likes to get his sleeves rolled up. BSL's business has proven quite cyclical, with a few rounds of layoffs during recessions as manufacturing slowed. But overall, it has been a great Kiwi success story - if perhaps with less of a public profile than Buckley's efforts as a motorsport impresario, which have seen him pump millions into speedway at Western Springs, where his battle with the Auckland council and some local residents continues.
Could we see some of the Buckley fortune used to fund New Zealand's first BNCT machine?
"Well not at this stage. Because I've poured so much money into this venture that until I get a few more sales, I'm pretty short on cash," Buckley says.
He won't reveal how much he has invested in Neutron Therapeutics but does offer: "I've certainly stretched my capacity."
The concept of BNCT has been around "almost since Rutherford split the atom", Buckley says.
It's pitched as a non-invasive treatment that can see a patient treated in a single hour-long session, with no after-effects from the treatment.
In a two-step, non-invasive process, a patient is first injected with a tumour-seeking drug containing a non-radioactive isotope (boron-10) with a high neutron capture cross-section. In the second step, the patient is exposed to a beam of low-energy neutrons, many of which are absorbed by the boron-10.
The absorption initiates a reaction that emits short-range, high-energy charged particles.
"It's like a little atomic bomb which is big enough to kill one cell alone," Buckley says. (Neutron Therapeutics' official promotional material says "scientific studies demonstrate that these particles systematically destroy the tumour cells while imparting relatively little damage to adjacent areas of healthy tissue.")
"There are a lot of tumours they say are inoperable or they can't irradiate because it's too close to your brain, pushing on your brain, so they just tell you you're terminal," Buckley says. "BNCT can treat most of those cancers."
Helsinki University Hospital used the a nuclear research reactor for a BNCT pilot for 12 years until the reactor was decommissioned in 2011.
Only the full-sized reactor could produce enough neutrons for the therapy, but it was difficult and expensive to get access to the reactor only about 50 patients were treated during the period. All were terminal. The average age was 60. The majority saw their life extended by six or seven years.
Around the same time, "we were making equipment for GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT). They realised BNCT was a good fit for their accelerator technology, but they didn't want to go into the medical business," Buckley says.
The Danvers, Massachusetts-based GTAT was in fact making a push into exfoliating sapphire - a method to create super-strong glass that it hoped would be adopted by, among others, smartphone makers.
Buckley - who had been dealing with GTAT for more than 30 years - discussed switching the focus of its accelerator development to BNCT therapy. But he says the US outfit "didn't want to get into the medical side because they were scared of lawsuits. Treating a patient is a whole different world."
But GTAT's decision to stick with industrial manufacturing didn't pan out. The company went into chapter 11, a form of bankruptcy. Buckley rescued it in late 2015, buying its intellectual property, taking on its lease and hiring its 24 staff. After refocusing the business on BNCT, it was reborn as Neutron Therapy.
Most of the manufacturing is carried out by BSL in Auckland.
Helsinki University Hospital came onboard the partnership, offering advice from its medical physicists and other experts to help produce the first BNCT, which it would host.
The BNCT Suite installation in Helsinki is now in place, though a CE ("Conformité Européene") mark is still pending. A CE mark is the EU equivalent of FDA approval in the US. Buckley says an FDA board is being updated on all CE mark testing in Helsinki, which he hopes will speed approval once Neutron Therapeutics lands its first US customer.
The BNCT Suite has a 2.6 million volt accelerator but can also be turned off at the wall, and produces so little radiation that staff can re-enter a treatment room immediately after a treatment. During treatment, a robotic arm is used to manoeuvre a patient to a CAT scan to identify the exact location of a tumour, and then in front of the beam. Buckley says both these features give his machine a jump on the opposition (there are two rival BNCT prototypes in Japan and one in the US).
The entire installation is around the size of a basketball court, but that's modest compared with using a reactor for BNCT therapy. And Buckley claims it's designed so that any failed component can be fixed within six hours.
He says the Helsinki testing so far has been sufficiently successful for the Tokushukai Medical Group to become Neutron Therapeutics' first commercial customer with its recent order for one BNCT Suite.
Building the Suite will take 40 staff at BSL about 10 months.
It will also require certification from the Japanese equivalent of the FDA before it can be used for clinical use.
All of the accreditation will take time, and in Helsinki the timeframe has already been pushed out a couple of times.
Buckley says Helsinki University Hospital's work involved trials with terminal patients, and if his BNCT Suite can produce the quality of neutron beam it promises, then the Finns could allow the machine to be used for first-line treatment as well.
Some cancer sufferers are impatient.
"Three of my friends came to me just yesterday asking if there was any way I could get them on the machine before it's certified," Buckley says.
They'll have to wait.
"It's a lot of paperwork, but it's good to do it properly and get it all out of your hair," Buckley says.
The gruff entrepreneur wants Neutron Therapeutics to be producing 25 BNCT Suites a year by 2025 - which would make it a $500m-a-year business, or more than three times the size of BSL today.
He'll fund the scale-up, in part, through an initial public offering.
"I always envisaged this company going public," he says.
When Neutron Therapeutics lists, it will be in the US, Buckley says - but as he has done for decades with his core business, manufacturing will stay in NZ.
Lead photo Bill Buckley by Michael Craig. Speedway photo by Doug Sherring