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Shining a New Light on Ovarian Cancer Treatment: New $1.5 million grant funds research aimed at better treatment with fewer side effects

Thursday, April 23, 2015 - Campus News -

A new $1.5 million grant to researchers at the Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center will advance work focused on an illuminating new treatment for ovarian cancer.

The five-year National Institutes of Health grant funds research by Youngjae You, Ph.D., a member of the Stephenson Cancer Center and associate professor with the OU College of Pharmacy. His team is focused on the use of photodynamic therapy to target ovarian cancer tumors.

Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer for women, claiming the lives of more than 14,000 women in the United States each year. This year, another 21,000 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Photodynamic therapy is a treatment that utilizes special drugs called photosensitizing agents. Those agents work only after they have been activated by light. By combining photodynamic therapy with site-specific chemotherapy drugs, You and his team hope to provide an extremely targeted cancer-fighting treatment for ovarian cancer – one that defeats the cancer while reducing many of the side effects often associated with traditional chemotherapy.

“The awarding of this NIH grant is a tribute to Dr. You and his research team and marks an important milestone for their work to help advance treatment for ovarian cancer. NIH funding of this kind is critical to our work at Stephenson Cancer Center as we further our mission to not only provide the best possible cancer care, but also to develop new, more effective treatments with fewer side effects for cancer patients,” said Robert Mannel M.D., director of the Cancer Center.

The grant awarded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health is an NIH Research Project Grant, commonly known as an R01 grant.  The R01 is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by the NIH, providing support for health-related research.    
“I am very excited about this grant. It funds important work aimed at helping save more lives,” said You.

Last year, You and his research team received a $550,000 Department of Defense grant to advance their research into photodynamic therapy in combination with site-specific chemotherapy as a treatment for breast cancer. This new grant from the NIH allows them to apply the same core principles to the treatment of ovarian cancer.

“Dr. You’s research greatly enhances the depth and breadth of expertise necessary to sustain a productive, collaborative drug discovery core in the OU College of Pharmacy,” said JoLaine R. Draugalis, R.Ph., Ph.D., dean of the college. “His pharmaceutical chemistry and cancer research themes as well as his photodynamic therapy approach generate excitement within the college and University.”

You said the challenge with ovarian cancer is that the cancer often is not discovered until it is in an advanced stage. Most women with ovarian cancer undergo surgery first, followed by chemotherapy to target any cancer cells that may remain following surgery.  Traditional chemotherapy, however, affects healthy cells as well as cancerous ones. You’s team hopes to change that by utilizing their new photosensitizing agents and activating them only after they have reached the tumor site.

"We can deactivate the toxicity and activity of the cancer-fighting drugs by using our special chemical bond and photosensitizer to make prodrugs,” You said. 

Prodrugs are drugs that are administered in an inactive form. The prodrug is delivered by intravenous injection, much like regular chemotherapy. The difference is that, unlike traditional chemotherapy drugs, prodrugs are not active until exposed to near infrared light, which is introduced only at the tumor site. The light breaks the chemical bond that prevents the drug from working, thereby activating its cancer-fighting ability. The goal is to kill the cancer cells while helping patients avoid the systemic side effects associated with standard chemotherapeutic drugs. 

“Dr. You has built upon his initial photodynamic therapy research to add an even more innovative component that decreases adverse effects and ensures that the drug is on target when activated,” Draugalis said.

Although laboratory studies must be completed before human trials begin, Dr. You said photodynamic therapy combined with site-specific cancer-fighting drugs may hold promise in the treatment of other cancers too, including head and neck, esophageal, lung and bladder cancers. 

The research funding is from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (grant number 1R01GM113940-01).

Oklahoma’s only comprehensive academic cancer center, the Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma is a nationally noted leader in research and patient care. The Stephenson Cancer Center annually ranks among the top five cancer centers in the nation for patients participating in National Cancer Institute-sponsored clinical trials, and it is one of 30 designated lead centers nationally in the Institute’s National Clinical Trials Network. In collaboration with the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, the Stephenson Cancer Center is decreasing the burden of cancer in Oklahoma by supporting innovative laboratory, clinical and populations-based research. The Stephenson Cancer Center has 200 research members who are conducting over 100 cancer research projects at institutions across Oklahoma. This research is supported by $31.1 million in annual funding from the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and other sponsors.

The University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy is committed to contributing to society through state-of-the-art education and research as well as modern, innovative pharmacy practices and services. With more than 5300 graduates since 1896, the college helps ensure the public need for safe and effective pharmaceutical care is met.  

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