HudsonAlpha, CFD Research Partnership Aims to Find New Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer

At the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, casual gatherings can lead to incredible research opportunities. Most recently at the Institute, a fortuitous encounter at a HudsonAlpha mixer led to a partnership that will search for new ways to treat pancreatic cancer.
HudsonAlpha Institute President Dr. Rick Myers and fellow faculty investigator Dr. Sara Cooper will work with CFD Research Principal Investigator AJ Singhal on a Small Business Innovative Research grant from the National Institutes of Health. The group will work to find a more effective target for pancreatic cancer drugs, illustrating the power of HudsonAlpha’s unique approach to public-private collaboration.

An Idea over Drinks 

For this project, the collaboration between the Institute’s Cooper Lab and CFD Research started at Science on Tap, a monthly campus event sponsored by HudsonAlpha where people get together to talk research over pizza and beer. Singhal spoke at the event, and he told the crowd about strides he and his team were making in modeling and targeting proteins.

They just needed some ideas for new proteins to target.

After his talk, Singhal found Myers, who noted there might be an opportunity for Singhal’s group to work with researchers at HudsonAlpha.

“It was an incredible moment,” Singhal said. “You could just feel it all coming together. This collaboration will define our research into pancreatic cancer drugs, and one day, it might even lead to a new treatment. A better treatment.”

Myers put Singhal in contact with Cooper, and the partnership began in earnest.

Cooper’s Lab had a number of novel target proteins identified through its work. CFD Research had the tools to model those proteins and predict drugs that might target them.

A Search for Treatment

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers in the world. According to Johns Hopkins, more than 44,000 Americans will receive a pancreatic cancer diagnosis this year; more than 38,000 Americans will die from the disease.

While pancreatic cancer is more treatable when found early, most cases are not found until far too late, leaving patients without curative treatment options.

“I study many kinds of cancer,” Cooper said. “Pancreatic cancer is particularly dangerous and cruel.”

The Cooper Lab previously discovered a number of genes were linked directly with patient survival in pancreatic cancer. One example from that study identified a gene that, if it becomes overactive, makes cells more resistant to drugs by limiting normal stress response that would trigger cell death. Other genes studied by the Cooper Lab control different aspects of the body, like how closely packed cells are or how cells metabolize drugs.

Through its nonprofit research work, the Cooper Lab generated a trove of data on genes and proteins related to patient survival for people with pancreatic cancer. The lab’s partnership with CFD Research allows them to use this knowledge for testing potential treatment options.

A Way Forward

Not only has the Cooper Lab developed a list of potential targets for pancreatic cancer treatment, they’ve also developed the means to test outcomes for those targets. In this case, Cooper and Singhal have honed in on a particular protein—the one that affects cellular stress response.

Using the three-dimensional structure of the protein determined by the team, they can predict which existing chemical compounds might be able to attach to it and render it non-functional. If the protein can be turned off, it could increase the effect of traditional cancer therapies.

“Partnering with outside experts is an important way to advance our non-profit research,” Cooper said. “We’re lucky at HudsonAlpha that we have highly specialized experts right here on campus with us.”

The first stage of the NIH grant will focus on finding potential drug molecules. For the collaboration, CFD Research will test a variety of molecules that could potentially inactivate the protein in question; the Cooper Lab will test those molecules to see if they work on pancreatic cancer cells.

“If everything goes the way we plan,” Cooper added, “We could walk away from this with a new drug.”