Put Cancer Cells in the Crosshairs

Studying the proteins expressed by cancer cells could soon lead to cancer treatments that don't cause debilitating side effects.

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Treating cancer can be tricky. Not only is every cancer different, but most common therapies, such as radiation and chemotherapy, also damage healthy cells, which results in the side effects that we associate with cancer treatment. Scientists are now studying the changes in cancer cells, particularly in the proteins that they express, in hopes of finding better ways of targeting cancer specifically.

Patrick Gunning, a medicinal chemist and professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, is looking for a cancer protein that he can shut down to treat brain cancer and multiple myeloma. In particular, a brain cancer diagnosis comes with a life expectancy of 6-12 months in the best case scenario, making it both rare and lethal. Gunning has singled out a protein called STAT3 as a master regulator that is frequently seen in these cancers and drives their growth. By designing molecules in the lab that knock out STAT3, his team has shown selective cancer cell death in promising pre-clinical trials – meaning that these new drugs are killing cancer cells, and have no measurable effect on normal cells. The next step is to confirm their anti-cancer activity in clinical trials.

Hyperactivation of STAT3 has also been identified in inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, so the molecules developed for cancer treatment may also be used to treat an even wider range of diseases more effectively.

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Prof. Patrick Gunning was born in Glasgow, Scotland.  He received a B.S. degree (with Honors) in chemistry in 2001 from the University of Glasgow.  He obtained a Ph.D. in organic chemistry under the supervision of Prof. Robert D. Peacock from the University of Glasgow in 2005. He was a Postdoctoral Research Associate with Prof. Andrew D. Hamilton at Yale University between 2005 and 2007. In September 2007 he accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. Prof. Gunning has authored or coauthored 53 research publications, and been an inventor of record on 9 U.S. Patents. To date, Prof. Gunning’s work has been featured on 10 journal covers. He is the recipient of the Connaught Award, David Rae Memorial Award for innovative research by the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, the Ontario Early Researcher Award, the Boehringer Ingelheim Young Investigator Award (in organic chemistry), the 2010 University of Glasgow Young Alumnus of the Year, the 2011, 2012 and 2013 CSC Ichikizaki award for Young Chemist and the 2011 Dean’s Research Excellence Award at University of Toronto Mississauga and was named the 2012 RSC MedChemComm Emerging Investigator Lectureship by the Royal Society for Chemistry (UK). Prof. Gunning was featured in the Toronto Star’s 2013 Top 10 to Watch. In 2013, he was the recipient of the 2013 University of Toronto Inventor of the Year Award and was the inaugural winner of the Baird of Bute Society’s Young Scottish Innovator of the Year. Also in 2013, Prof. Gunning was named a Canada Research Chair in Medicinal Chemistry. In 2014, Prof. Gunning was the recipient of the NSERC Accelerator Award. In five years at the University of Toronto, Prof. Gunning has attracted ~$6.75 million in research funding.