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KU Professor and COBRE Center Member to Appear on KCPT Cancer Special

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

LAWRENCE — Jennifer Laurence, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy, will be featured in the upcoming Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) special “Cancer in KC.”

The program will air at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 2, on the heels of the three-part documentary "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," by filmmaker Ken Burns. "Cancer in KC" will examine the many ways in which cancer affects the community and feature interviews with people on all sides of what Burns calls the longest running war in human history.

Laurence will talk about a discovery she made in her KU lab that could lead to more effective cancer treatment. In the ongoing fight against cancer, the most pressing problem isn’t how to kill diseased cells. Researchers figured that out years ago, Laurence said. Today’s challenge is finding a way to kill cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.

Platinum has long been used in the treatment of cancer, but despite the metal’s potency, its use has been limited by two critical issues, she said. As the drug moves through the bloodstream seeking out cancer cells, it damages and kills healthy cells along the way. The damage causes chemotherapy side effects such as hair loss, nausea and weakness. Even after it reaches the cancer cell, platinum is less than 100 percent effective, and cells that survive often become resistant to future treatment.

Laurence discovered a three-amino acid peptide sequence that shows promise for addressing both of these issues when placed in line with a targeting protein. Her sequence binds to platinum and prevents it from releasing its toxins until it reaches the cancerous cells.

“The more precise targeting would provide a more elegant solution to killing cancer,” Laurence said. “And because the peptide has the ability to bind a diverse set of metals by swapping out platinum with a metal useful for medical imaging, the same targeting molecule may be used to light up tumors, allowing doctors to visualize the patient’s disease and follow treatment progression to improve outcomes.”

The process of translating research into products is a lengthy and costly endeavor, and this powerful technology is at an early stage. To support commercialization, Laurence raised capital from angel investors in the region and founded Echogen Inc. Laurence and her team now are working to couple their promising discovery with targeting molecules from partners in the biotechnology sector to bring the new drug delivery process to cancer patients

A National Institutes of Health COBRE grant fueled the discovery of the three-amino acid sequence. A J.R. & Inez Jay Award helped launch the imaging portion of the project, and funds to test the therapeutic use of platinum came from the KU Cancer Center and led to a Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Translational Research Award.

Adequate funding is key to successful and sustained research, Laurence said.

“Targeted therapies offer the ability to treat patients based on their individual needs. Over 30 years of intensive research and development are behind the recent success of the two targeted cancer drugs, and much more funding is required to bring forward new innovations like ours to the clinic,” she said.

Extended content, including the interview with Laurence, is available at the KCPT website.