Earlier this year, the nation launched what's been called the Cancer Moonshot initiative—a monumental new effort to boost cancer research in pursuit of a cure. In the months leading up to this new initiative—and in the months since—faculty scientists, alumni and students brought many causes for hope to the fight against cancer.
Read on for 12 ways that members of the College of Natural Sciences community have expanded our understanding of cancer and enhanced our ability to detect and treat it.
A research team led by scientists George Georgiou and Everett Stone in the Department of Molecular Biosciences engineered an enzyme that safely treats prostate and breast cancer in animals. The enzyme removes an amino acid from the blood stream that, while non-essential for healthy cells, is necessary for many cancers to grow, survive, and even resist treatment.
Jonathan Sessler, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, was named the 2016 UT Inventor of the Year for his prodigious work, including a relentless pursuit of new cancer drugs inspired by his own battle with lymphoma.
For healthy cells to become cancerous cells, they have to lose several systems that regulate healthy function such as cell growth and division and DNA repair. New findings from the Department of Molecular Biosciences' Tanya Paull about how one such regulatory system works could aid in efforts to develop personalized treatments for cancer.
Just over a year ago, Jim Allison (BS '69, PhD '73) was awarded the prestigious Lasker Award for his ground-breaking immunology research. An immunotherapy technique he developed frees T cells to fight cancer by blocking a mechanism that cancer uses to shut down the immune system. The research landed Allison on the cover of Texas Monthly and in a central feature in the New York Times this year.
Microbiology alumna Gail Phillips (BS '78) was an instrumental member of the team that oversaw research for a life-saving drug that has since helped extend and save the lives of many people with an aggressive form of breast cancer known as "HER2-positive" cancer. More recently, Dan Leahy, a structural biologist and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences, discovered details about the structure of the HER2 protein to improve the drug.
A $2 million recruitment grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) helped the Department of Molecular Biosciences recruit both Leahy and David Taylor, who has experience in cutting-edge molecular biology technologies that are used to study DNA repair and other cancer-related research. The College is also building its first facility with cutting-edge cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to support these and other scientists.
UT Austin molecular bioscientist Lauren Ehrlich discovered this year that a type of cancer found primarily in children can grow only when signaled to do so by other nearby cells that are noncancerous. The finding contributes to a growing body of research that implicates the environment around a cancer in its spread—an area of study that holds promise for new alternatives to treat the disease.
Two undergraduate students, both alumni of the Freshman Research Initiative's DIY Diagnostics research stream, created apps to help patients detect skin cancer at home. Many Texas media outlets covered the students' innovation and what it promises for do-it-yourself medicine.
Linda deGraffenried in the Department of Nutritional Sciences published a commentary in multiple Texas newspapers focusing on the importance of diet in reducing breast cancer risk, especially for obese and overweight patients. She also found previously that aspirin has a powerful positive anti-cancer effect in this population.
The Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded an Early Translational Research grant to chemist Livia Eberlin, for the development of a new tool to accurately recognize thyroid cancer. The tool utilizes a technology called ambient ionization mass spectrometry to look for patterns and rapidly determine whether cancer is present. The announcement came within weeks of when Eberlin received a 2017 Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences in recognition of her research.
Medulloblastoma, the most common brain cancer in children, is formed by mutations that activate a signaling pathway. Molecular bioscientist Steve Vokes received a grant from the St. Baldrick's Foundation to investigate how this pathway controls genes through specific DNA regions. By studying these regions, they hope to find a key to a new therapy for the brain cancer.
This year 18 College of Natural Sciences students participated in a 70-day ride from Austin to Alaska to support cancer research. Over the years, UT Austin student cyclists have raised more than $7 million for the fight against cancer through the Texas 4000 race. Among this year's riders was Madhushree Zope, a biochemistry senior we'll be profiling in the upcoming edition of the Texas Scientist magazine, due out in early 2017. A cancer survivor herself, she rode the Texas 4000 and then began working at MD Anderson in a lab conducting immunotherapy research.