Research partnership uncovers cancer clues

12:51 PM, Feb 25, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS - When it comes to making inroads in the fight against cancer, two heads are better than one.

So are two teams.

That's the premise behind a research partnership between a Mayo Clinic molecular biologist and a U of M medicinal chemist. A team from the two institutions, funded by the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, has uncovered clues to possible drugs for two rare cancers through research involving baker's yeast and a library of chemical compounds.

Mayo Clinic molecular biologist Jim Maher, Ph.D., and University of Minnesota medicinal chemist Gunda Georg, Ph.D., led the research, which is published the findings in the journal PLoS ONE.

The scientists and their teams operated as a collaborative unit, one of the dozens that the Minnesota Partnership has funded over the past 10 years to answer basic questions about disease.

The two rare cancers, paraganglioma and pheochromocytoma, are caused by errors in the DNA of families and have been difficult to study in the laboratory. The research teams devised a way to make the yeast cells mimic the cancer cells and then compared their growth against more than 200,000 potential drugs to ultimately find a handful of promising leads - potential drugs that would selectively slow the growth of the mimic cells.

 "Many patients travel to Minnesota for treatment of these conditions, because we have the clinical experience to help them," Dr. Maher says. "Hopefully this work will lead to future treatments."

Maher speaks from experience, as a 35-year paraganglioma patient himself.

The findings suggest that drugs might work by blocking the yeast cells' sugar digestion, essentially starving them. The researchers think that the same approach might one day be used to treat patients with the two rare cancers, and they are planning studies to pursue that idea.

The Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics is a collaboration among the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and the state of Minnesota. To learn more about the Partnership, go to the partnership website.

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