Peering into the microscope, Xiaoqi Liu is drawn into the rhythmic motions of the cells — how they grow, how they divide, how their signal pathways are modified by the presence of something new.
But gazing out the windows of the Hansen Life Sciences Research building, he is also drawn to the people passing by. “You try to do something good for society,” says Liu, an associate professor of biochemistry and a member of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research. “Cancer biology is one way.”
Liu is setting his sights on prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths for men in the United States. Currently, there are few therapies for the cancer in its most advanced stages.
Now Liu and his collaborators at Purdue, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Indiana University School of Medicine have discovered that low doses of metformin, a widely used diabetes medication, combined with a gene inhibitor known as BI2536, can suppress the spread of prostate cancer that resists all other available treatments — that could potentially prolong patients’ lives.
“By combining low levels of two well-tolerated drugs, the progression of this disease could be significantly delayed,” he says. “Completely curing the cancer at the advanced stage is pretty much impossible, but this treatment might manage it for a while — that’s exciting.”
The researchers tested the drugs in a classical cell culture assay of prostate cancer cells and in advanced prostate tumors in mice. Low concentrations of the drugs significantly slowed the development of cancer in both trials. The mice tumors were grown from the tumor cells of a late-stage prostate cancer patient, suggesting that the treatment would prove effective in humans.
“Those results were amazing,” says Liu, whose work was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in January. “These are the first data we’ve generated from a real patient, so I was almost jumping in the air when I saw that it worked.”
The next step in the research is to test the combination of drugs in clinical trials. Further research is also needed to understand the underlying mechanism of metformin and why it is effective at suppressing prostate cancer.
“As a basic cell biologist, I don’t develop new compounds by myself. But I can use my expertise to understand how cells modify or their signals change in response to different drugs,” he says. “The cancer center has created an ideal environment for me to learn a lot from my colleagues and for me to contribute to their work.”
– Angie Roberts
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