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November 30, 2012

Rose-Hulman speaker on medicine’s cutting edge

TERRE HAUTE — The answers needed to solve medicine’s biggest puzzles might well be found in the puzzles’ smallest parts.

The theater in Hatfield Hall was full Thursday evening as Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology hosted one of the country’s leading cancer scientists for a discussion concerning targeted therapy. Bruce Horten, M.D., National Medical Director for the Integrated Oncology Laboratory at LabCorp, explained to engineering students and professors alike the rapidly growing opportunities possible through merging science and technology.

Prior to his speech, Horten explained the relatively new concept of targeted therapy as it differs from treatments such as chemotherapy or surgery.

“At this stage, we are in the infancy of targeted therapy,” he said, noting the crucial role engineers can play in advancing this approach.

In broad terms, targeted therapy seeks to address cancer at its source, working with biological molecules as small as nucleotides, which form the building blocks of nucleic acids through units of three, called codons. These blocks ultimately become a protein, but the structure it assumes is determined by genes. One flaw in one gene could result in a misshapen protein, and perhaps even cancer.

“The targets we’re looking for are incredibly small, tiny,” he said, explaining the work with nucleotides themselves.

But by tailoring medicine to address structures at that level, the dysfunction they cause can be arrested without destroying healthy tissue, he said.

“There are advantages to using targeted therapy as opposed to chemotherapy,” he remarked, explaining that with the latter, a toxic agent is spread throughout the entire body. The hope is that the medicine will be less toxic to healthy cells than to the cancer, but inevitably many of the former are killed. Targeted drugs are much milder on the body, he noted.

In the case of chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, such medicine has been demonstrated to convert a once deadly disease into a chronic condition. The drug marketed as “Gleevec” has been in use since 2001 on such patients, and has been shown to arrest the disease, he said. As long as patients use the drug, the disease is held at bay. But if the drug is removed, the disease resumes its spread, he explained.

“Well, that’s just phenomenal,” he said, remarking this makes for a significant change considering that disease was once terminal.

But that particular drug is effective by controlling just one gene. What happens when battling a type of cancer requires a drug that can simultaneously hit 15 targets, he posed. The problem with targeted therapy at present is that cancer is a dynamic condition and multiple genes are at play, all interacting one with the others. Going forward, researchers are working on “multi-targeted” drugs, but the technology required to study those dynamics at the molecular level is limited, he said.

Hence medicine’s outreach to the engineering world.

Horten’s speech was the first in a series to be hosted at Rose-Hulman, all of which will aim to address what the National Academy of Engineering has termed the eight Grand Challenges of Engineering, medicine being one. Funded by Christa Percopo, wife of the late Rose-Hulman graduate and board member Michael, the series is hoped to offer engineering students a chance to see where their work might take them.

Rose-Hulman president Robert Coons credited Percopo’s gifts as important in helping foster discussions which span the bridge between academic and pragmatic.

“Unfortunately, cancer has probably touched the lives of many of here tonight,” he said in his introductory remarks.

Horten pointed out that for many in medicine, the side effects and limitations of drugs are simply a matter of reality. But for engineering students such as those at Rose-Hulman, they offer a puzzle to be solved.

Dr. Ross Weatherman of Rose-Hulman’s chemistry department brought along student Katherine Moravec for Thursday evening’s presentation. His class is studying targeted therapy in light of estrogen receptor proteins in breast cancer therapy, focusing on the drug Tamoxifen.

“It’s a pretty common breast cancer drug,” he said, explaining his group is working to replicate, and test its replicas.

Eventually, cancers tend to become resistant to the drugs used in targeted therapy, he said. But through further study, methods to keep it bay can be found. Discussions such as those fostered Thursday evening help students see where their work can make a real difference in application, he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

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