Student-faculty research makes promising contribution to cancer therapy

Photo of McDaniel College research team, left to right, senior Phuc Truong, senior Jake Holechek, Chemistry professor Dana Ferraris, senior Bobby Lease
September 12, 2017

Chemistry majors Jake Holechek, Robert Lease and Phuc Truong began their senior year this fall with confidence in their research skills and a passion for experimental chemistry — both gained in Chemistry professor Dana Ferraris’ lab while making a tangible contribution to the next wave of cancer therapy.

Even before their final year of classes began, they had tackled critical basic research in molecular medicine, presented their cancer-drug discovery work at the annual conference of the American Chemical Society and filed for a patent on the most promising of the molecules they created.

Holechek and Lease’s research involved making what Ferraris calls “tools” for the greater community of cancer researchers to use in developing 21st century cancer drugs — drugs that are personalized or target specific genotypes of tumors. Cancer researchers will use any molecules that show potential as probes in the next level of drug discovery. In the past, 20th century cancer therapy meant killing all rapidly dividing cells with “nasty drugs that had nasty side effects,” Ferraris says.  

“At the basic level we’re working, the research is a high risk investment and not something that pharmaceutical companies are interested in pursuing,” says Ferraris, who had a 15-year career in drug discovery research before becoming a professor. “We take the research to the point of target validation where it is a less risky investment for the companies to further develop it.”

Contacts from his career in pharmaceutical research offered Ferraris the opportunity for his students to collaborate with researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the University of Maryland Greenbaum Cancer Center here in the U.S., which meant expertise in determining structure through protein x-ray crystallography and testing their compounds in cancer cell models.

All three of the students plan to go on for doctorates in Chemistry, and all want to continue to do research. They found themselves presenting among post-doctoral grad students and meeting with professionals in the field of pharmaceutical research at the conference.

In fact, joining professional organizations and presenting work at conferences are among the learning objectives Ferraris sets for his undergraduate research students.

“Many students don’t get the opportunity to attend or present at a conference like this until their second or third year of grad school, so Jake, Bobby and Phuc are all going to be ahead of the curve,” Ferraris says. “The research also allows them to work with a team of scientists, many who are outside their discipline — and it helps facilitate their transition from student to colleague.”

Holechek of Union Bridge, Md., found the research to be a liberating experience.

“You have the freedom to act on your ideas and to troubleshoot — it’s a real confidence builder,” says Holechek, who has a second major in Biochemistry and wants to pursue his Ph.D. in organic chemistry to do methods research in industry.

Lease of Nottingham, Md., endorses his research partner’s thought.

“In this type of research, you are figuring out how to get where you need to go,” says Lease, who plans to go on for a Ph.D. in molecular medicine. “It is a few steps beyond the cookbook-type labs necessary for classes.”

Truong of San Jose, Calif., spent the summer at Columbia University in New York City with a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) scholarship doing research in batteries and solar cells, a field he’ll pursue during his doctoral pursuits in materials science.

During the summer between Truong’s sophomore and junior years, his research with Ferraris focused on the optimization of a recently discovered series of compounds by a group of researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine against acute myeloid leukemia. The cancer of the blood and bone marrow has a 25 percent five year survival rate.

Truong took on the project of making 12 compounds in the series, hoping to make a molecule that did not have the series’ typical flaws of being chemically unstable, insoluble in water and non-specifically reacting with water, proteins, DNA and other molecules in the body.

One compound known as McD66 hit the mark. There’s now a patent pending, manuscript in press and much excitement in the Ferraris lab.  

“Doing research has given me more confidence that I know what I am doing,” Truong says. “I really enjoy experimental chemistry and see myself doing research in industry.