New drug created to target only cancer cells

01/09/2020

Kellen Stepler | features editor

A Duquesne University pharmacy professor and his team have recently created and synthesized a drug that targets cancer cells without damaging normal cells.

Aleem Gangjee and students in his lab have developed a way to block the protein SHMT 2. When SHMT 2 is overproduced in the body, it is a major contributing factor in pancreatic cancer cases.

Gangjee explained that SHMT 2 is known as an “onco driver,” which is an enzyme that drives cancer.

“The goal of the drug is to attack a specific enzyme in pancreatic cancers,” Gangjee said. “The onco driver leads to growth of cancer cells in the pancreas.”

Gangjee also notes the drug is selective; the new treatment will enter only pancreatic tumors. He explained that cancer cells have a transport mechanism that allows them to facilitate nutrients to enter the cell. Some transport systems are only in tumor cells, while others are found in normal and tumor cells.

“The drug avoids normal cells, and just attacks cancerous cells,” Gangjee said. “Only cancerous cells get transported.”

Currently, the drug is still in animal trials. These studies have been successful thus far, as the treatment has yielded positive results in both early and late-stage pancreatic cancer.

“We expect the drug in clinical trials in about a year or two, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through,” Gangjee said.

Gangjee is hopeful to begin pre-clinical development of the drug in the near future with a group called Flag Therapeutics, which is an early-stage oncology company.

Last year, Gangjee shared his findings at an American Association of Cancer Research conference, and the results have been published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.

The idea to create a drug like this was “obvious,” according to Gangjee.

“Once we found that SHMT 2 was an onco driver, it was just a matter of designing a drug,” Gangjee said. “It took an enormous amount of time, it didn’t just happen overnight. The idea was mine, and lab student Junayed Nayeen synthesized the drug.”

Chemical synthesis in drugs is an artificial execution of chemical reactions to obtain a product. Synthesis occurs through physical and chemical manipulations involving one or more reactions.

Gangjee explained that students in his lab synthesize the drug at Duquesne, and then send out the drug to other institutions to be tested. Gangjee collaborates with Dr. Larry Matherly at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, which tests the treatment, and Dr. Frank Sorgi, president and chief executive officer at Flag Therapeutics, which develops the drug for clinical trials.

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., and has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers. For all stages combined, 91% of pancreatic cancer patients will die within five years of diagnosis.

Gangjee’s research is not going unnoticed at Duquesne.

“Dr. Gangjee has dedicated his entire career to new drug discovery. His latest discovery, a drug targeting pancreatic cancer, is an excellent example of how basic science medical research contributes to increasing health outcomes in patient their communities, which is the essence of the mission of the School of Pharmacy at Duquesne,” said J. Douglas Bricker, dean of Duquesne’s School of Pharmacy.

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