A coal tycoon bankrolls an innovative early diagnostic tool
They are an unlikely pairing. On one side, meet Paul Darrouzet, who made his fortune in coal with an exquisitely timed foray in the Bowen Basin before the GFC. On the other side is medical scientist Sean Parsons, who has devoted his adult life to the disciplined study of critical care medicine and caring for patients.
After developing a mine with some associates, Darrouzet sold out in 2007 to international resources giant Anglo American for more than $700 million. Living in Queensland’s Whitsundays, where he owns the 500-plus berth Abell Point Marina, he still plays hard and invests well. He enjoys collecting fast cars, sleek boats and shopping centres, but for three years he has been venturing into a very different business.
Parsons is a product of Brisbane Grammar School and the University of Queensland. He workedas a doctor in indigenous communities and in hospitals in regional Queensland. As a senior registrar in a major Brisbane public hospital’s Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit,
he helped deal with a swine-flu pandemic and
was struck by how little was known about the
influenza virus and its deadly relations. After
spending two weeks caring for a patient who
almost died of influenza, he decided more needed to be done to diagnose the virus.
Parsons teamed up with a long-time friend, Steven Dahl. With help from David Dahl, Steven’s father and founder of Tradelink, they began to explore technologies to improve the management
of influenza, while still doing their day jobs.
Parsons and Darrouzet have come together to form a company called Ellume (Illuminating Healthcare) with a product devoted to the early diagnosis of influenza. If they get it right, they could save lives and achieve a financial success that makes Darrouzet’s windfall from his coalmining investments look like chump change.
“I don’t believe there is a more innovative diagnostic product this close to market anywhere in the world,” says Parsons.
His moment of change came in 2011. “I looked after a patient in ICU at Princess Alexandra Hospital who spent two weeks on extracorporeal membranous oxygenation [lung bypass] and
nearly died from influenza,” Parsons tells The
Deal. Standing at the patient’s bedside, Parsons decided the medical community should be able to do much better at diagnosing and managing
flu. He was prepared to risk his medical career
to pursue the cause. Devoting all his spare time to his new mission, he invented the Respirio Flu Test, a ground-breaking device an ordinary
person could use to see if they had the flu.
Meanwhile, Darrouzet had become a generous sponsor and director of Wesley Medical Research Institute in Brisbane. As a medical layman, Darrouzet could never understandwhy doctorswere still unable to tell the difference between a viral and a bacterial infection. It was a point he laboured in meetings with the institute’s Julie Campbell. The businessman speaks with a refreshing directness and candour; the carefully rehearsed corporate spin-cycle is not part of his lexicon.
“I do read a lot about what is happening internationally in relation to pandemic responses to viruses, and the other side of this is about our inability to treat certain infections which have become more resilient because of the increased role of antibiotics,” Darrouzet says. “I knew that something like 60 per cent of the use of antibiotics
was unnecessary and of no benefit, but it continues because doctors do not have the clinical tools to diagnose something that is viral — and resistant to antibiotics — and something that is bacterial.”
Then Campbell heard of Parsons’s groundbreaking invention. Call it fate; call it sheer luck. Campbell was able to bring Parsons together with Darrouzet, who was thinking about the
same thing — and had the financial resources to do something about it. Their company, Ellume, brings together patent lawyers, laboratories and scientists, all dedicated to a medical innovation in nanotechnology. It is now awaiting word on its clinical assessment by US health authorities, which will start the next step of full clinical trials.
It has not yet been three years since their first meeting, but Darrouzet and Parsons are convinced they are on a global commercialisation pathway with a unique product that can forever change
the diagnosis and treatment of influenza for
hundreds of millions of people. The big difference
between this and other influenza rapid diagnostic tests, according to Parsons, is its accuracy and simplicity for the patient. It looks and feels like a futuristic mask. For the user worried if they have the flu, the task is straightforward — you blow as if you were blowing your nose into a tissue. The test is activated when the flaps of the mask are closed and a collection slide is clicked.
A combination of four innovations — quantum dot fluorescent nanoparticle immunoassay; disposable fluorescent immunoassay analyser; unique code authentication; and non-invasive sampling and integrated testing of nasal secretions — thenworks to produce a negative or positive result on the mask’s screen for Influenza A and Influenza B. Put more simply, a test result is achieved by detecting viral antigens in the nose-blow samples. It can provide positive detection within three days of the onset of flu-like symptoms and can be used with children as young as one year old.
I back the right people and in Sean I am backing someone in whom I have a lot of confidence as a scientist and a doctor ... We are in this for the long haul
Parsons and Darrouzet vouch for 96 per cent accuracy, with scope to be more accurate as nanotechnology evolves. The earlier a definitive diagnosis of flu can be made, the better for everyone. Parsons and Darrouzet believe their innovation, which would be sold over the counter in pharmacies for about $25, will save hundreds of millions of dollars and numerous lives by alerting infected people, who can then be isolated to prevent an outbreak and treated with anti-viral medication.
Parsons points to international studies showing that seasonal influenza outbreaks infect 5 to 15 per cent of the world’s population every year, with an estimated three to five million severe cases and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. In the US, the annual death toll from influenzarelated symptoms is about 36,000.
If Respirio passes assessments from US health authorities and the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, full clinical trials will follow next year.
Darrouzet admits he likes a punt, but he also does his homework. With the Respirio product, he says, he has put his money down to back another strong hunch underpinned by solid science and verifiable data sets of impressive results.
“But it is more than that — I back the right people, and in Sean I am backing someone in whomI have a lot of confidence as a scientist and a doctor,” he says. “We see enormous commercial opportunity. We can also make the world a better place. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Sean Parsons, left, and Paul Darrouzet have teamed up to bring to market a simple device to detect flu early