December 1, 2020

Treating cancers starts small: More than 100 Purdue scientists study cancer on the cellular level

Drug discovery at heart of Purdue University Center for Cancer Research findings, mission

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When cancer patients ask about the drug that may save their lives, they don’t expect to hear about zebrafish or fruit flies. Yet this is precisely where the life-saving treatments coming out of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research begin.

As one of only seven basic laboratory cancer centers recognized by the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, PCCR connects more than 110 researchers from across the university to study cancer on the cellular level. This form of molecular research is the foundation of all drug discovery.

“We study normal cell function in very basic systems like yeast, fruit flies and zebrafish,” said Timothy L. Ratliff, the Robert Wallace Miller Director of the PCCR. “They’re simple models that help us define pathways quite rapidly and effectively.”

The center, which celebrated its 40th year as an NCI-recognized member in 2018, has recently received a five-year accreditation extension as part of the competitive renewal of its NCI basic laboratory cancer center status.

The work in PCCR’s labs advances understandings of cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment.

Though they may never see a human patient, PCCR researchers do treat naturally occurring cancer in canines. As the only NCI basic laboratory cancer center that includes a college of veterinary medicine, PCCR has the unique opportunity to study canine oncology while giving dogs chances to live longer, fuller lives.

“We actually treat canine cancers,” Ratliff said. “Pet owners are ecstatic that we can extend the lives of their pets, and we utilize this process to better understand cancer in people.”

Work by Deborah Knapp, the Dolores L. McCall Professor of Comparative Oncology in Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine and 2017 Purdue Research Foundation Innovator Hall of Fame inductee, has recognized bladder cancer in dogs as the most relevant model for invasive bladder cancer in humans. By treating canine patients, Purdue’s researchers can observe therapies in clinical settings comparable to human circumstances.

walther-ratliff Timothy L. Ratliff is the Robert Wallace Miller Director of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research.

PCCR also advances technologies in cancer detection, imaging and treatment thanks to the university’s roster of experts in engineering and related fields. Engineering and physics methods allow the production of tools that improve effectiveness of cancer-related drugs. One example is a branch of biodynamic imaging technology in development by PCCR member David Nolte, the Edward M. Purcell Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy. The developments improve treatment by detecting a patient’s sensitivity to chemotherapeutic drugs.

Other innovations allow cancer researchers to better understand the cellular changes that happen in tumor formation. PCCR member Bumsoo Han, a professor of mechanical engineering, worked alongside Stephen Konieczny, now a professor emeritus of biological sciences, to develop a pancreatic cancer “time machine” to observe how cells with key gene mutation interact and become invasive. The tumor model also can be used as a prescreening tool to discover new drug targets for better drugs.

Collaborations such as these are unusual for academic institutions.

“Only MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has a similar marriage with engineering,” Ratliff said.

PCCR researchers also work diligently to move discoveries out of the lab and into public use in conjunction with the Purdue Institute for Drug Discovery. Because investigating the safety and efficacy of drugs is an expensive, time-consuming process, Ratliff co-founded Boilermaker Health Innovations, a certified nonprofit that helps fund Purdue-discovered drugs through human clinical trials. Compounds that make it through a Phase I trial can often be sold to an established pharmaceutical manufacturer or spun off into a for-profit company.  

One of the center’s most recognized success stories is Endocyte Inc., a startup originating from the work of PCCR member Philip S. Low, co-founder of the Boilermaker Health Innovations, the Presidential Scholar in Drug Discovery and the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. Low’s research, which focuses on providing direct-targeted treatment to diseased cells through the creation of small molecules, helped the biopharmaceutical company reach its $2.2 billion value. PCCR was instrumental in advancing a key targeting molecule by initiating a Phase 0 clinical trial that had such positive results it was a critical drug that contributed significantly to the sale of Endocyte Inc., Ratliff said.

Below are some examples of PCCR scientists and stories about their work.

Graham Cooks, the Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry

Bumsoo-Han-portrait Bumsoo Han, a professor of mechanical engineering, developed a tool that is helping scientists to more efficiently discover and test new drugs for pancreatic cancer. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca McElhoe)

Mark S. Cushman, Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry

Deborah Knapp, the Dolores L. McCall Professor of Comparative Oncology

Sophie A. Lelièvre, professor of cancer pharmacology

Philip S. Low, the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Presidential Scholar in Drug Discovery

Ei-ichi Negishi, 2010 Nobel Prize in chemistry, the Herbert C. Brown Distinguished Professor of Organic Chemistry and the Teijin Limited Director of the Negishi-Brown Institute

Herman O. Sintim, the Drug Discovery Professor of Chemistry in Purdue’s Department of Chemistry

 About Purdue University

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Writer: Christy McCarter

Media contact: Amy Patterson Neubert, 

Source: Timothy L. Ratliff,

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