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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.”

Acclinate Seeks to Educate Minorities on Importance of Clinical Trials

Imagine, two people walking down the street toward each other. They both have asthma and their doctors have just prescribed them a new inhaler that’s just hit the market.

As fate would have it, as they approach one another, they both are hit with an asthma attack. Both patients use their inhalers. One person gets immediate relief, the other one doesn’t and dies before the ambulance can get there.

How could something like this happen? More easily than many people realize.

                         Dr. Del Smith

“Sometimes it’s about ‘did this medicine work as good as it should’ and sometimes it’s a matter of life and death,” said Dr. Delmonize “Del” Smith, founder and president of Acclinate Genetics.

As modern medicine advances, it’s become more clear that genetic makeup plays a larger role in the efficacy the drugs they are prescribed than originally believed, according to Smith.

“Before we knew what we know about genomics, an aspirin was an aspirin was an aspirin, for everyone,” he said. “But, then we would scratch our heads and say ‘why was this particular drug not having an impact on certain groups and certain populations?’

“We just didn’t have enough data and knowledge to understand why.”

Fortunately, this scenario hasn’t happened, at least not exactly like what’s presented above, and Smith and his colleagues at Acclinate are working to make sure it never happens.

According to Acclinate, it’s estimated that, by 2060, non-Caucasians in America will outnumber Caucasians and, right now, ethnic minorities make up about 40 percent of the U.S. population, but only 2-16 percent of the participants in clinical studies.

“As our country becomes more diverse, the time is now to address the underrepresentation of minorities and people of color in genomic research and clinical trials,” Smith said.

The Food and Drug Administration is taking notice of the disparity, too.

Smith said the agency recently said if a drug company is going to bring a new drug to the market, then that drug had to be adequality tested on the makeup of the target market. Specifically, if a drug is made to target an illness that’s more prevalent in African-Americans, then it needs to be tested using more African-American subjects than ones from other groups, which doesn’t always happen.

Finding enough people to participate in those studies is where Acclinate comes in.

Acclinate, located on the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology campus, was founded with the goal of assisting other clinical research organizations with the diversification of their research samples by expanding their genomic research and clinical trials to include diverse ethnic groups.

“This is something that most people don’t think about when they think about health disparity and health inequality,” Smith said. “Mostly they think about access to health care and doctors, but we believe that this is a significant part of that equation, and this is the part that we want to try to address.”

Basically, Acclinate focuses on building databases of willing participants focusing on minority subjects that they can provide to various companies when they are putting together various drug trials.

The biggest challenge in finding participants is overcoming the misconceptions and lack of knowledge on the subject and finding the right subjects.

For example, right now, Acclinate is looking for a number of African-American men who are HIV positive to take part in a trial for drug aimed at treating the disease. That’s a highly specific group of people.

“How do we do what we do? Part of it is educational awareness, because there is a significant barrier when it comes to people’s willingness to participate in clinical trials, particularly if these individuals are minorities,” Smith said. “Unless these individuals are going through an illness, for example, a late stage of cancer where they are not having any success with their current treatment. What we find is they are much more willing to take part in these clinical trials.

“But, if you go to an individual who is fairly healthy, who hasn’t really thought about this, and you start talking to him about clinical trials, particularly within certain groups, and in their mind they are thinking I don’t want to be a science experiment. I don’t want the government injecting me with things.

“So, we have to spend a tremendous amount of time educating people on why it’s important.”