30th Anniversary Celebration: XXX-Out Cancer

Meet the Researchers

Rakesh Srivastava, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry at UT Health Northeast, is working on new drugs to treat breast and prostate cancer. He’s investigating small organic molecules that bind to "death receptors" on cell surfaces. The molecules activate the process that tells the cells to die.

"The compound I am working on is a small organic molecule that lasts days," Dr. Srivastava says. If proved safe and effective, someday his research may lead to a pill that treats breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer, as well as leukemia.

The compound has proved effective against human prostate cancer and leukemia in cell cultures and in a mouse model, Dr. Srivastava adds.

"It does not affect normal cells. They don’t have death receptors," Dr. Srivastava says. In certain cases, the tumors disappeared. "Our goal is to kill cancer cells selectively. This approach should have fewer side effects than chemotherapy."

Dr. Srivastava currently has a $500,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to evaluate novel drugs for prostate cancer. In addition, he has a $536,000, four-year National Institutes of Health grant that ends in 2009 and also is funded by a $250,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation that ends next year. Dr. Srivastava received his first Susan G. Komen grant nine years ago.

Sharmila Shankar, Ph.D., an instructor in biochemistry, is conducting basic research that could lead to new ways to prevent and treat cancer.

Dr. Shankar is investigating HDAC inhibitors, specialized drugs involved in regulating the cell and the how the number of cells increases. HDAC inhibitors interfere with a particular protein and stop the spread of cells by inducing apoptosis – a type of cell death – in cancer cells, she says.

In July, Dr. Shankar received a National Institutes of Health grant to study the prevention of prostate cancer by curcumin, which is found in turmeric, a spice used in curry dishes. She’s interested in "chemo-prevention" of cancer, using natural chemicals in green tea, red wine, and broccoli.

These are non-toxic, but they act slowly. They may take 10 to 20 years to show any results. "You have to develop chemo-prevention as a dietary habit. It could serve as a primary prevention strategy for high-risk patients, those with a family history of cancer. Chemotherapy works fast, but it can be toxic," she says.

She and her husband, Dr. Srivastava, would like to combine these cancer preventing-agents with anti-cancer drugs. Dr. Shankar also recently received a $300,000, three-year grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to study breast cancer.

Sreerama Shetty, Ph.D., professor of medicine, is studying how inflammation relates to cancer. People with chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), which injures the lungs, have a higher probability of later developing lung cancer than do people who don’t have COPD.

Lung cells that are under constant assault, either by the noxious chemicals in tobacco smoke, or by particles found in their work or home environment, develop aggressive characteristics to survive, Dr. Shetty says.

For example, they avoid their programmed cell death. This makes them more likely to develop into cancer cells, he adds. Dr. Shetty is investigating how suppressing a particular protein in these cells also suppresses tumor growth.

He and his team have conducted experiments on tissue culture in the lab and have used mouse models. They are testing the protein to see if it suppresses tumors when injected directly into mouse tumors. If that works, the next step is clinical trials.

Usha Pendurthi, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular biology, has received a $962,000 four-year grant renewal from the NIH to continue her investigation into how the blood-clotting process affects the growth of cancerous tumors. She received the initial grant in 2000.

"In the first grant, we identified a number of genes that are activated in lung and vascular cells as a response to factor VIIa binding to tissue factor – the process that triggers blood clotting," Dr. Pendurthi says.

"In this grant, we will study the role of tissue factor in tumor growth and the spread of cancer to distant organs. We believe the results of this study will help identify new drug targets for metastatic breast cancer," she says.

"Most large and aggressive tumors produce a lot of tissue factor, which is displayed on the outside of the cancer cells. Sometimes little pieces of the cancer cells shed off the tumors into the bloodstream and cause fatal blood clots," Dr. Pendurthi says.

"We are working to block the part of tissue factor that makes the cells metastasize. We know there is a relationship between clotting and cancer. Cancer patients die of clotting," she adds.

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