UH researchers on mission to combat pancreatic cancer cells
Pancreatic cancer is the leading cause of cancer death today because of its uncanny ability to spread rapidly and to remain undetected in earlier stages.
College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics professor Robert A. Welch, in collaboration with UH Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling assistant professor Chin-Yo Lin and CNRCS director Dr. Jan-Ake Gustaffson, shed a ray of hope as they try to develop new drugs to target fatal pancreatic cancer cells.
“In our lab, we study a family of molecules called nuclear receptors,” Lin said. “The reason we are excited about these molecules is the fact that they can be targeted and regulated by small molecules or drug compounds and that allows for us to not only study these molecules, but also target them in the treatment of diseases.”
Pancreatic cancer starts off in tissues of the pancreas, an organ responsible for producing digestive enzymes and hormones that regulate the metabolism of sugars, and quickly makes it way to other parts of the body.
By the time symptoms appear in a patient, the cancer has advanced to an untreatable stage where surgical removal is nearly impossible.
Lin and his research team have been specifically studying a nuclear receptor called the liver X receptor, or LXR and its functions in cancer.
The study focuses on pancreatic cancer, which Lin said kills 95 percent of the patients within five years time. After studying the effects of targeting LXRs in pancreatic cancer cells, his team discovered that binding molecules called ligands attached to the receptors and successfully slowed down the growth of tumors and tumor cells.
“We now have a promising target and some very exciting results to build up upon,” Lin said. “Perhaps sometime in the future we will be able to target LXR and hopefully, either prolong the lives of pancreatic cancer patients or even at some point, cure them of the disease.”
Their research was initially funded by a local cancer research foundation called Golfers Against Cancer, a group of individuals from the Kingwood Country Club.
The team is seeking a pilot-study grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Recent doctoral graduate Nicholes Candelaria and current student Sridevi Addanki led the project as part of their dissertations.
Pre-health and psychology senior Lydia James expressed her interest in the study.
“There is no doubt that their funding is going to the right place,” James said.
A recent study conducted by the National Cancer Institute estimates more than 1.5 million new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2015.
The research is in its pre-clinical trial stage with these drug compounds already being tested in cells and in an animal model.
Lin said that their next step is to set up various other types of genetic animal models to get a better understanding of the disease before entering the clinical stages of development.
Their plan is to either move forward with existing compounds or partner with biotech or pharmaceutical companies to identify better drug candidates, specifically suited to humans. Lin said he anticipates that the entire pre-clinical process could take up to five more years, most of which would involve extensively testing the genetic models for safety and efficacy.
“I think what he is doing is phenomenal,” pre-optometry and biology major Khanh Ton said. “I am excited to see what the future has in store for professor Lin’s research because his success is a gift not only for him, but for the University.”