Project leads to possible agent for new breast cancer drug

Randy Griffith, The Tribune-Democrat

posted October 01, 2014

      Breast Cancer  Project leads to possible agent for new breast cancer drug Working together with help from two students, a Pitt-Johnstown chemistry professor and a Windber Research Institute scientist have identified what could be the agent for a new breast cancer drug.

The project by George Iida, Windber director of cell biology; Lisa Bell-Loncella, associate professor of chemistry; and Pitt-Johnstown students Marc Purazo and Yifeng Lu illustrates the mutual benefit of the university’s partnership with Windber Research Institute.

It started with a discussion about different opportunities to work together, Bell-Loncella recalls.

She was telling Iida, Windber’s cell biology director, about her class, where her students were preparing chemical complexes with the transition metal ruthenium and then do testing to demonstrate the complexes’ known anti-tumor characteristics.

She asked him if there might be a better way to test the tumor-killing activity.

Iida liked the idea and recruited two of Bell-Loncella’s students as interns.

Purzano and Lu took the ruthenium complexes and began experimenting in Windber’s labs under Iida’s supervision.

Iida says he couldn’t commit his own time to the study because he’s working in other grant-funded projects that require an accounting of his hours.

“Those two young guys worked very hard,” Iida said.

“They found one molecule very effective in killing the breast cancer cells.”

That information opens the way for additional research to further examine the effect.

“Now, how does the cell tie into the process?” Iida said.

“Once we know the mechanism, we can develop another compound that more effectively with less toxicity and so on.”

That work will require a more concerted effort, but the initial discovery and the questions it raises are the building blocks for science, Iida said.

He plans to present the findings to a peer-reviewed scientific journal in order to seek grants for the next step in developing a new drug.

“Everything is coming from their research,” he said.

“My goal is to write the paper and get the funding. That’s my job.”

Iida believes he will be successful in getting the paper accepted for publication.

It will include Bell-Loncella, Purzano and Lu as co-investigators.

Different world

Working in Windber’s state-of-the-art facility put the students in a different world, Purzano said.

“I have always known science was detailed,” Purzano said.

“It opened my eyes to how detailed. This showed me why the questions have to be so detailed.

“In science, we have an idea. We do experiments to see what’s the answer to this question? It has to be very controlled so different factors can be differentiated out and we’d be able to see the clear end result.”

The outcome surprised his professor.

“I am an inorganic chemist and my area of expertise is the chemistry of ruthenium,” Bell-Loncella said.

“Up until now, my research has not focused on complexes that might have anti-cancer properties.”

‘Cool’ experiment

Expanding on work reported in other journals, Bell-Loncella was developing experiments to explore the cancer-killing properties.

“I did not expect it would turn out to be this cool,” she said.

Having research published with your name in a peer-reviewed journal is a big deal for both teachers and students, said Jill Henning, an assistant biology professor at Pitt-Johnstown.

She’s working with Rachel Ellsworth, Windber’s director of translational research.

Study’s findings

Their study showed exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus in the herpes family may contribute to tumor growth if its effects remain in some immune system cells near a tumor.

That study is also being prepared for publication.

“It helps a lot with the tenure track because in order to be granted tenure, you have to have published papers that are peer reviewed.”

Photo (By Randy Griffith, The Tribune Democrat): George Iida, Windber Research Institute’s director of cell biology, explains the sociology concept he uses to show how cancer cells may be treated.

To read the article in The Tribune-Democrat, please click here.