Graham Cooks

Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry

The Purdue Center for Cancer Research (PCCR) has a goal of collaboration. Because researchers span so many areas of Purdue University, we have the unique ability to work in groups to solve cancer-related problems. Graham Cooks, Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry, has been a top contributor to the collaborative efforts of PCCR. His work with Mass Spectrometry is widely used in many areas of cancer research across campus. What started with research on plants has moved to faster diagnostics during brain surgery and to faster, less expensive manufacturing of cancer medications.

Cooks has been a key member of PCCR for decades. In fact, he won the Purdue Cancer Center Award in 1983 for his work with plant alkaloids. “I’ve been interested in cancer research for a long time,” says Cooks. “Originally, only in medicinally useful plants influenced by my PhD which deal with plant alkaloids. I worked on this topic using tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) using that then-new method to identify particular alkaloids in plants without sample workup in collaboration with colleagues in Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy. I worked with people like John Cassady, CJ Chang, Jerry McLaughlin and Bill Baird. This work was quite distant from patients and disease, although the methods were helpful in drug discovery and pharmacological research.”

From this plant alkaloid research, Cooks found that Mass Spectrometry could be a much more useful tool in cancer research than how it was currently being used. Eventually, this turned into using a desorption electrospray ionization (DESI), a mass spectrometry method, to obtain diagnostic information on tissue, especially during surgery. As it stood, a surgeon would have to evaluate the tissue and wait on the results. But with Cooks’ methods with DESI, the results were much quicker and could allow the surgery to move forward without the wait time. In the beginning stages of this research, it was difficult to get human tissue samples, so he collaborated with Debbie Knapp, PCCR member of the Purdue Veterinary School, to use dog bladder tissue. This translated well to the human disease and was readily available. From there, Timothy Ratliff opened the doors for Cooks to work with several surgeons at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. This collaboration allowed Cooks to be able to focus on brain cancer because of the great need for molecular information during surgery.

Cooks says, “We have worked with several surgeons in the Department of Neurological Surgery at IU, most frequently with Aaron Cohen-Gadol and Eyas M. Hattab. Hattab is a neuropathologist now at the University of Louisville. We recently completed a three-year 50-patient study in collaboration with this group. A number of papers have resulted, including one in preparation that shows excellent data for determination of the presence or absence of a particular genetic mutation in the isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) cycle. This information is not currently available during surgery, but if it were, it could have substantial positive impact through influencing the aggressiveness of the surgery.”

While working on this research, Cooks was also using his DESI research in collaboration with David Thompson, professor of Organic Chemistry, to create cancer medications in a much smaller space at a much faster rate. Ultimately, what this means is that it can be used to manufacture expensive cancer drugs faster, therefore less expensive, which translates to saving lives. 

Cooks can hardly be captured in a few paragraphs. He has graduated over 130 PhD students, published 1,100 papers, been issued 40 patents, and has an H-index (ISI) of 101.  For this reason, we invite you to his lab page and his official Purdue University page to read more about his ever-growing list of accomplishments.