The Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded $5,954,596 to the Combinatorial Drug Discovery Program at the TAMHSC Institute for Biosciences and Technology (IBT). This research builds upon the success of established therapies by repurposing drugs already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to create new treatments in the fight against cancer. The drugs can be used on their own in new ways or combined with other drugs, natural products or compounds to create novel therapies.

“We are in the midst of a period of remarkable advances in our understanding of the basic molecular processes that underlie many forms of cancer,” says primary investigator Peter Davies, Ph.D., M.D., professor and director of the Center for Translational Cancer Research at the Texas A&M IBT in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. The Combinatorial Drug Discovery Program seeks to address a challenge associated with these advancements: how to convert that knowledge to new treatments that ultimately benefit patients.

In its role as one of six institutions to receive a CPRIT core facility support grant, TAMHSC enables other health care institutions to complete research they otherwise wouldn’t be able to due to the complexity of drug discovery research. This is because at the heart of the Combinatorial Drug Discovery Program is a cutting-edge high-throughput processor, the IN Cell Analyzer 6000 from GE Healthcare — acquired with a 2012 CPRIT grant — and high-speed robotic workstations, which can process up to 50,000 combinations of drugs, natural products and chemicals each day.

Through partnerships with cancer researchers from Texas A&M, the Texas Medical Center, academic institutions and biotech companies throughout the state, the Combinatorial Drug Discovery research team, led by Clifford Stephan, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M IBT, is able to support more than 20 cancer-related screening projects each year.

The success of the first phase of the IBT’s drug discovery program has led to such a demand for the specialized services provided by Stephan’s team that the program’s current infrastructure has been unable to keep up with the needs of the research community. The new CPRIT grant will allow for the purchase of the next generation of ultrafast high-throughput microscopes as well as new state-of-the-art robotic dispensers based on acoustic rather than mechanical delivery. These new technologies will enable the Texas A&M IBT research team to increase their capacity by more than 30,000 wells per day.

“This grant is going to allow us to move in new directions,” says Stephan. “The new equipment will not only be geared toward faster management of samples, but it will allow us to pursue more complicated experiments based on models developed by clinicians.”

By harvesting cells from cancer patients’ tumors and testing drug combinations on them in the IN Cell scanner, Stephan’s team and collaborating institutions can speed the discovery of new treatments for some of the most devastating forms of cancer.

One therapeutic, a drug combination used in tandem with radiation, has proven effective in treating lung cancer in initial testing and is currently in clinical trials. Other therapies in development include treatment for chemotherapy-resistant breast cancer as well as for pediatric brain cancer, the latter a project that is the result of a partnership with researchers and clinicians at Texas Children’s Hospital.

The CPRIT grant awarded to Texas A&M IBT builds on longstanding collaborations such as the John S. Dunn Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics, which was established in 2003 by a small group of multi-institutional scientists all intent on curing the world’s most devastating diseases. The new CPRIT award extends this tradition by engaging TAMHSC as the lead institution and joining together team members from notable Texas Medical Center institutions, including UT M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine and the UT Health Science Center at Houston.

“We’re here to help in the discovery of new treatments,” says Stephan. “We are working with clinicians and clinical investigators as a team to discover new ways to treat some very terrible diseases.”

In addition to the combinatorial therapies grant, TAMHSC was awarded two other highly competitive CPRIT grants in the areas of oral cancer research and regenerative medicine. Researchers from the Texas A&M Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Temple were awarded $200,000 to study the role of mesenchymal stem cells and suicide genes in killing cancer cells, and researchers at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas were awarded $199,999 to further explore the role of salivary biomarkers as oral cancer diagnostic tools.

— Jennifer Fuentes

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