Loyola and Notre Dame researchers report promising new approaches to treating cancer

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Promising new approaches to treating cancer were reported during a recent meeting of researchers from Loyola University Chicago and the University of Notre Dame.

The two research powerhouses earlier this year joined forces in a multidisciplinary cancer research collaboration. Loyola and Notre Dame researchers reported initial findings of six joint projects during an all-day retreat at Loyola's Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center.

Some projects already have made enough progress for researchers to submit their findings to scientific journals for publication. Other projects are in earlier stages but showing significant progress. And, as is typical in groundbreaking medical research, findings in a few cases have not confirmed researchers' hypotheses.

"Even when initial findings don't pan out, they open up new avenues of research," said Patrick Stiff, MD, director of the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center. "Our goal is to spur the discovery and development of innovative therapies."

A total of six $50,000 grants are funding the Loyola-Notre Dame research projects. The Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, University of Notre Dame's Harper Cancer Research Institute and Trinity Health are funding five of the projects. The sixth project is funded by donors Michael and Estella Cronk of Oak Brook Ill.

The grants provide seed money for the joint research projects. Initial findings from pilot projects will help researchers when they apply to the National Institutes of Health and other organizations to fund continuing research, Dr. Stiff said.

The goal is to fund an additional two to three projects per year, Dr. Stiff said.

During the retreat, researchers from Loyola and Notre Dame provided updates on their joint research projects:

•New weapon against ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer is silent during early stages, and often is not detected until it is in an advanced stage. Only 20 percent of women diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer survive for five years. Ovarian cancer is associated with an overabundance of receptor molecules on the surface of tumor cells. Researchers hope a drug to block the production of one of these receptors may ultimately improve survival in ovarian cancer patients. This grant is funded by Michael and Estella Cronk.

Principal investigators: Maureen Drakes, PhD (Loyola) and Sharon Stack, PhD (Notre Dame).

•Helping the immune system fight cancer. Various therapies boost the immune system to kill cancer cells. Researchers have identified an interaction between cellular proteins that unfortunately weakens this immune response. Preventing the proteins from interacting is a possible strategy for enhancing cancer immunotherapy.

Principal investigators: Brian M. Baker, PhD, (Notre Dame) and Stephanie K. Watkins, PhD, (Loyola).

•A better model to study leukemia. Molecular signaling between leukemia cells helps protect the cells from the lethal effects of chemotherapy drugs. This results in drug resistance and greatly hampers patients' recovery. The signaling also attracts cancer cells to bone marrow, leading to the spread of cancer. However, the molecular features of such signaling are difficult and time-consuming to study with current methods. So researchers are developing a new and more efficient model to study this molecular signaling.

Principal investigators: Diane Wagner, PhD (Notre Dame) and Jiwang Zhang MD, PhD and Paul Kuo, MD (Loyola).

•A Trojan Horse approach to fighting melanoma. An anti-melanoma drug that is effective when applied topically is ineffective when injected, because the cells are able to purge the drug. To disable this defense mechanism, researchers are planning a Trojan Horse approach. They will package the drug inside nanoparticles so that the drug reaches a site inside the cell where it can exert its toxic effect.

Principal investigators: Caroline Le Poole, PhD (Loyola) and Basar Bilgicer, PhD (Notre Dame).

•New approach to treating breast and skin cancers. Potassium channels are promising targets for fighting cancers, including breast cancer and skin cancer. A potassium channel is a pore in a cell membrane that allows the passage of potassium ions. (An ion is an atom or molecule with an electric charge.) Researchers are looking for ways to stimulate potassium channels, thereby causing cancer cells to grow old without replicating and preventing them from migrating to other parts of the body.

Principal investigators: Saverio Gentile, PhD, (Loyola) and Jeremiah Zartman, PhD (Notre Dame)

•Attacking breast cancer cells. A molecule called the notch protein, found on the surface of breast cancer cells, activates a molecular pathway, thereby promoting tumor growth and survival. Drugs under study could fight cancer by interrupting this pathway. Researchers are designing and synthesizing nanoparticles to deliver such drugs to the tumor.

Principal investigators: Clodia Osipo, PhD (Loyola) and Ryan Roeder, PhD (Notre Dame)

•Genetically modifying the immune system to fight cancer. A type of white blood cell, called a killer T cell, attaches to and kills cells it recognizes as abnormal. Researchers are genetically modifying T cells so that they will attack cancer cells, while leaving normal cells alone.

Principal investigators: Michael Nishimura, PhD (Loyola) and Brian Baker, PhD (Notre
Dame)

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