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Philip Low

Ralph C. Corely Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

'Trojan Horse' carries treatment to cancer cells, reduces side effects

The elimination of harmful side effects from the treatments for the most debilitating diseases is the goal of chemist Philip Low, who has successfully increased cancer drug potency while reducing toxicity. And the end is in sight.

More than 12 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year. They will face a brutal battle, and many current treatment methods are making an already difficult struggle even harder, due potentially debilitating, painful and sometimes permanent side effects.

Philip Low is working to put an end to that however.

"I believe the days of non-targeted drugs that indiscriminately destroy healthy cells along with the diseased cells are coming to an end," says Low, a member of the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. "More intelligently designed medicine will alleviate the unearned and undeserved suffering of patients facing the most serious diseases of our time."

In 1989, while studying signal processes involved in transporting large molecules across the cell membrane in plants, Low and his team discovered that they could gain entry for a large molecule into a cell by linking it to a vitamin used by the cell. He immediately recognized that this process could be used medically and began to study the same process in mammalian cells.

Today, Low is using a method of sneaking large molecules directly into diseased cells while avoiding healthy tissue — a process that will save lives and improve the quality of life for patients undergoing treatment.

So far, Low and his team at Endocyte, a company he founded at the Purdue Research Park, have successfully increased cancer drug potency while reducing toxicity. Six drugs in the end stages of clinical trials for kidney, lung, ovarian and endometrial cancers are the result of this work.

"The ability to get large molecules, such as proteins, antibodies or toxins, across the cell membrane was a problem that had defied the scientific community for years," Low says. "We found that we could use the vitamin folic acid as a Trojan horse to carry molecules undetected past the gates of a cancer cell."

The method can be used to both detect and treat cancer, and Endocyte takes his work through the clinical trial and commercialization process. Low has 35 patents granted and pending, with more on the way as he looks to apply the method to other diseases that greatly reduce one's quality of life such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, atherosclerosis, lupus, osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis.

"I hope that this work will have an impact on human health and will reduce the pain, suffering and misery associated with the worst diseases," he said. "I hope that in the future, treatments for diseases will be advanced to the point where people look back and call what we are doing today 'caveman' medicine."

Photos by: Andrew Hancock

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