4 scientists explain what attracted them to cancer drug development

"From the bench to the bedside" is a phrase often used to describe the drug discovery journey from the lab to the clinic.

MD Anderson's Therapeutics Discovery division, however, takes a different approach, by beginning with the bench at the bedside. This cancer drug discovery engine conducts research that is influenced by patients from the very start.

"We are completely driven by the unmet treatment needs we see in patients who come to MD Anderson for help," says Phil Jones, Ph.D., vice president of Therapeutics Discovery. "Guided by the expertise of our world-class clinicians, our efforts begin with the patient and their cancer."

The benefits of an in-house cancer drug discovery model

Composed of three Moon Shots Program™ platforms and the Neurodegeneration Consortium, Therapeutics Discovery is working hard to bring life-saving medicines to patients quickly, safely and effectively. These medicines range from new chemical compounds to antibodies and cell-based therapies.

Unlike typical pharmaceutical companies, Therapeutics Discovery was built here at MD Anderson, reducing the time it takes for a new drug to start benefitting our cancer patients. It's a recipe for success that is already yielding promising treatment results.

And at the heart of it all are more than 100 scientists, driven by a passion to see their work one day save a patient's life.

Inventing new ways to treat cancer and help patients

The Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS) is devoted to inventing new small-molecule drugs, or chemical compounds, that target specific vulnerabilities in cancer cells.

Mick Soth, Ph.D., is a lead chemist for one of IACS’ drug discovery projects. He’s responsible for designing the safest and most effective compounds possible.

Soth spent more than a decade working for a major pharmaceutical company, but grew increasingly frustrated by limited successes and a lack of meaningful collaborations. He joined MD Anderson five years ago to find a new, more productive environment for drug development. Two of his projects are already advancing to clinical trials. This type of early success, coupled with tremendous cross-communication in the division, is exactly what he was looking for.

But what ultimately makes it all worthwhile?

"The first patient who is actually helped," Soth says.

Developing new antibodies to fight cancer

The Oncology Research for Biologics and Immunotherapy Translation (ORBIT) platform develops antibodies that recognize specific targets to either seek and destroy cancer cells or stimulate the immune system against a tumor.

Dongxing Zha, Ph.D., associate director of ORBIT, brought decades of research and antibody development experience with him when he joined MD Anderson four years ago. He also brought personal experience, having previously lost his father to gastric cancer.

"Cancer is a horrible, horrible disease that affects almost everyone directly or indirectly," Zha says. "I really want to contribute and help find new drugs to help those patients who desperately need new therapies."

In a few short years, his team already has developed two drugs, one that’s now being tested in clinical trials and another soon to be.

"I'm very excited and extremely proud of our team, and it's only possible at MD Anderson," says Zha. "We couldn't deliver this anywhere else."

Understanding how drugs work and which patients will benefit

Therapeutics Discovery's Center for Co-Clinical Trials helps our researchers better understand how the drugs that are developed work and who will benefit the most from them.

For Angela Harris, an associate scientist on the in vivo pharmacology team, working at MD Anderson was a "dream job." The native Houstonian worked for 12 years with a Houston-area pharmaceutical group but jumped at the chance to bring her expertise to MD Anderson four years ago.

Harris conducts preclinical experiments with new therapeutics to learn how safe and effective they might be for treating cancer in humans. The results of her team's work form the basis for decisions on whether or not to move into clinical trials and which patients should be treated with the new therapies. The clinical trial with Soth’s compound in a subset of lung cancer was influenced by her work.

"That's what we're all here for," she says. "I think we will make a difference in patients' lives. That's what motivates me."

Neurodegeneration Consortium

The Neurodegeneration Consortium is a multi-institutional initiative established in 2012 to better understand diseases that destroy the nervous system and develop new therapies to treat them. The consortium includes researchers from Therapeutics Discovery, Baylor College of Medicine, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Paul Acton came to the Neurodegeneration Consortium with a personal and professional passion to take on Alzheimer's disease. After watching four family members be diagnosed with or die from the disease, he chose to devote himself to developing new drugs more than 25 years ago.

"It's definitely something that is real for me and gets me out of bed in the morning," Acton says.

As a senior research scientist, Acton leads drug discovery efforts for the Neurodegeneration Consortium. While the consortium’s work focuses on Alzheimer’s disease, the drugs developed there may also benefit cancer patients suffering from the  side effects of chemotherapy that negatively affect the nervous system or brain function.

Acton has lost several family members to cancer and has witnessed these side effects personally. Driven by this experience, he’s made it one of his goals to help these patients.

"My hope is to get a drug not just into the clinic, but through the clinic and to the patients to make a difference in their lives."

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