By SARA ARTHURS
A group of University of Findlay researchers has developed a chemical compound that, in testing so far, is able to kill certain types of cancer cells without harming healthy cells.
The scientific discovery was inspired by curry.
Dr. Rahul Khupse, associate professor of pharmacy at the university, is from India. He said he began thinking about the compounds in curry, which have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. He studied some of these compounds while in graduate school at the University of Toledo.
At the University of Findlay, his team set about studying whether a compound found in curry can attack glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer that is hard to treat.
Khupse said they chose this particular cancer since it’s one where patients have “very few options” and even with chemotherapy and radiation, may not survive long.
The team’s goal was to start with a curry compound and make it more selective for glioblastoma — without harming normal cells. Another challenge was figuring out how to deliver it to the glioblastoma.
The challenge is what’s known as the blood-brain barrier, a lining that keeps what the body sees as toxic molecules out of the brain, Khupse said.
Think of it as a mesh screen, said Laura Inbody, a fifth-year pharmacy student. It’s as if the drugs are insects, trying to get inside but kept out by the screen. However, things the brain needs, like glucose and amino acids, do get through the barrier.
The problem is that this barrier prohibits most medications from entering the brain, Khupse said. But there are some types of drugs that are specifically designed to get through the barrier, so the researchers had to figure out how to design a chemical that could do this.
They designed a compound and made it in a laboratory, literally building molecules. Khupse said it’s “almost like Legos.”
Inbody said the team would tinker with it to get what they were looking for.
The university has a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, which allows researchers to design specific chemical compounds. Students can make a molecule, and the machine can confirm exactly what they have made.
The team designed a series of compounds and ended up creating one known as RK15. They found that this particular compound was able to attack brain cancer cells, but would leave healthy cells alone.
The specific compound is not itself found in curry, but research into curry is what led to developing the compound.
Khupse said the research is still in its infancy and will require many more years of testing, but “it’s a pretty significant finding, don’t get me wrong.”
Khupse said the university is now looking for another institution to partner with to conduct animal studies. After that will come studies in humans. The hope is that it will be the light at the end of the tunnel for people with this type of cancer.
It’s too early to say what will happen, but Khupse said the hope is that this will lead to the creation of an actual medication that people can take, to “create an option” for patients who may not have one.
Jacob Reyes, also a fifth-year pharmacy student, said the work is “definitely a challenging process.” And while research requires a lot of work, it also requires luck, as some compounds may not produce the chemical reaction researchers are trying to get.
Reyes said the discovery wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of support from the university.
Inbody said she learned that “research requires a lot of patience.” You need to troubleshoot when something isn’t working, and apply what you learned.
She has been involved with the project for three years, since her second year as a student.
“It’s made me happy to see something come of it,” Inbody said.
Khupse said the work has allowed students to see the process of how new drugs are discovered. He’s had experiences with other research that was less successful. He said you learn that research is hard, and if you fail, you pick up and start again.
Khupse said it’s rewarding to teach the students, “getting their young minds to think outside of the box.”
Inbody said team members didn’t really reach the “aha moment” until they tried testing the compound against normal cells. Sometimes you can create something that will kill cancer cells, but that upon further testing is also shown to kill healthy cells. Realizing that this compound only attacked cancer cells was when the students realized they were onto something.
Reyes said he hasn’t settled on a specific career path, but this work has led him to be more interested in possibly going into research.
Inbody said she wants to stay involved in oncology, either as an oncology pharmacist or in researching cancer drugs. She said there’s a need, with the population getting older.
Khupse said the team plans to publish its research. They have also presented it at a national conference.
Arthurs: 419-427-8494 Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs Twitter: @swarthurs