‘The future’ of targeted cancer treatment developed by BYU students, researchers

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Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

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PROVO (ABC4) – Just a couple of decades ago, Dr. Josh Anderson couldn’t have imagined cancer research being where it is today.

Traditional cancer treatments had typically always involved some sort of full-blown chemotherapy, which while somewhat effective in preventing the spread of cancerous cells, doesn’t discriminate against other dividing cells in the body. Symptoms such as mouth sores, stomach issues, and hair loss have long been hallmarks of the pitfalls of chemotherapy.

Nowadays, the understanding of what causes, or drives, the spread of cancer has come leaps and bounds, coining a new term: targeted treatment. A more focused grasp on which particular genes in a cell are driving the cancer can create a far more effective treatment than the spray and pray technique of traditional chemotherapy.

Anderson’s lab at Brigham Young University has recently made enormous strides in targeted treatment by developing a new drug to counteract one of the over 150 known cancer drivers, a gene called TNK1. The collaborative effort between BYU’s team of academics, industry experts in the Silicon Slopes area near Lehi, and students – including many undergrads – is “exciting,” according to Anderson.

“We’re at a point right now where there’s still a lot to learn and a lot to do in identifying cancer drivers and developing therapies, but you can really see now that this is the future of much better way to treat cancer,” Anderson explains.

TNK1 first came onto Anderson’s radar when he identified its cancer-driving properties six years ago. Shortly afterward, he got in touch with one of his former undergraduate classmates, Dr. Steve Warner, who currently works as a Senior Vice President and Head of US Research at SDP Oncology, a cancer treatment company with a branch in Lehi, to see if they could work together on a drug.

Connecting with an old friend to work on a new development in the fight against cancer has been one of the most thrilling parts of the breakthrough, Anderson says.

“It’s crazy how things turn out that way,” Anderson exclaims, remembering the days when he and Warner were working on plant research at BYU back in the late 1990s. “Steve and I had been talking about wanting to collaborate for years for a long time since like undergrad days and so this just offered the perfect opportunity. And the fact that it was successful makes it even that much more fun to be doing this with a friend.”

The two old chums haven’t been working alone on this project, they’ve brought many of the university’s students into the Fritz B. Burns Cancer Research Laboratory with them to develop another stride in targeted treatment. The work in the lab included students from all levels in their academic journeys, from Ph.D. cancer researchers to undergrads just cutting their teeth on the science.

Anderson feels that having so many young scientists in the lab is something that makes BYU’s efforts in cancer research so unique. Listing over 100 undergrads as authors on a major cancer research paper is “unlike anything you’d see at another major university,” he adds.

He laughs that the magnitude of the findings, and their involvement with them, could be lost on some of his younger students.

“It’s all they’ve known,” Anderson states. “Some of them probably won’t realize how unusual it is until they go to graduate school somewhere else and see ‘Wait, there are no undergraduates at all doing the research.’”

As for what’s next, continuing to build the arsenal of targeted treatments by identifying and treating the cancer-driving genes is the best way to chip away at the disease. Knowing exactly what the patient is up against could make a world of difference in what cancer treatment will look like when Anderson’s undergrads are running labs of their own.

“The next breakthrough will be if any patient that presents in the clinic with a tumor, you can determine what the driver is and you can look in your quiver for a drug that will work against that driver. That’s kind of the holy grail right now of targeted therapy.”

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