RALEIGH — Longtime friends Ken Adler of N.C. State University and Reen Wu of the University of California-Davis have teamed up to forge a cross-country collaboration to fight cancer.
Using a drug developed by Adler, the team was able to stop the spread of lung cancer, or metastasis, in mice.
“This could be a breakthrough type of treatment,” Adler said of the work, which was published Monday in the journal Oncogene.
Adler, a professor of cell biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine, originally developed the drug, a small compound similar to a protein called a peptide, to stop inflammation from spreading in patients with other lung problems such as asthma or chronic bronchitis.
Wu and Adler thought the same mechanism could keep cancer cells from spreading.
After Wu tested the peptide on human cancer cells last fall, he called Adler, who remembered Wu’s reaction: “ ‘Wow. We’ve never seen anything like this. It stops them moving completely.’ ”
The peptide inactivates the main cable inside of cells, called actin, which directs cell movement, Wu said. Inactivating actin prevents it from anchoring to the cell wall and keeps cells from moving.
“It’s a very interesting idea,” said Dr. Norman Sharpless, deputy director for UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I think the science behind it is very solid.”
Testing on different cancers
The cancer center is now working with Adler and Wu to test their drug on mice that are genetically programmed to develop cancer.
These mice develop cancers that are very similar to those seen in humans, allowing researchers to better predict the drug’s potential for human treatment, Sharpless said.
The center, which collaborates with researchers from more than 50 different universities and pharmaceutical companies, will also see whether the team’s drug effectively stops the spread of other types of cancer, such as breast cancer and melanoma.
Because a similar drug is already partway through human trials for the treatment of lung inflammation, Adler and Wu are optimistic that the pathway to treating cancer patients could be faster than usual.
The successful bi-coastal collaboration between Adler and Wu was founded on more than three decades of friendship. In fact, this weekend Wu will travel to North Carolina to attend Adler’s wedding.