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Until There’s a Cure: 21 Ways Longhorns Fight Cancer

Faculty are tackling the challenge from many fronts, working to more deeply understand cancer in order to defeat it. “There is still so much work to be done.” 

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In Pursuit of Health graphic


This story is part of our yearlong series “In Pursuit of Health,” covering medical news and research happening across the university.

Just as there is no singular cancer, there is no singular solution to fighting it.

“There isn’t going to be one magic bullet,” says associate professor of biomedical engineering Laura Suggs, who researches how cancer cells interact with the extracellular matrix surrounding them. “It’s human nature to want to find one answer to fix things, but we’re talking about a wildly complex system.”

Laura Suggs UT cancer research lab

“We’re interested in trying to develop ways of understanding how cancer cells behave on extracellular matrix materials that are much more like what they would encounter in the body, instead of a petri dish,” says Laura Suggs, associate professor of biomedical engineering. Her work could help inform clinical trials or drug screenings for cancer treatments. 

Faculty at The University of Texas at Austin are tackling the challenge from many fronts, spending years in the lab, exploring new treatments with patients and working for funding to give people access to more effective diagnostic tools, less toxic medicine, less expensive care and more emotional support.

From examining nanoparticles and cell biology to rethinking massive health care administration systems, these researchers are working to more deeply understand cancer in order to defeat it.

“There is actually much more to learn. It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Suggs says of the current body of knowledge. “And even if we understood everything that happens during cancer progression, when you put a chemotherapeutic drug in there, it changes everything. There is still so much work to be done.”

Suggs sees the most productive work coming from groups of inter-disciplinary researchers working together, rather than the now-common single-investigator-driven approach. (“That’s not how science works best,” she says.)

It’s why she formed a cancer-focused working group with fellow UT researchers Amy Brock (biomedical engineering), Carla Van Den Berg (pharmacy) and Vernita Gordon (physics). They are meeting to learn more about each other’s work and review other research and hope to start collaborating on projects soon. Over the course of her career, Suggs has seen research funding decline, and thinks larger group projects might be able to advance the science further than solo researchers working on smaller projects independently.

Below, learn about some of the work being done at UT to outsmart cancer.

1. James Tunnell, associate professor of biomedical engineering, created a pen-sized instrument that can detect skin cancer within seconds using light pulses. The quick, non-invasive tool could help save billions of dollars and ease patients’ pain by eliminating the need for biopsies of benign lesions.

UT cancer research lab

Inside Linda deGraffenried’s lab [Photo: Marsha Miller] 

2. Nutrition researcher Linda deGraffenried is working to identify the optimal combination of diet and chemotherapy to treat the most aggressive cancers that begin in the breast or the prostate and rapidly spread to other parts of the body.

3. Doctors treating brain tumors can’t choose a treatment plan without sufficiently understanding the extent of the tumor’s invasion into normal tissue. So George Biros, professor at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, is using UT’s Stampede supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center to improve the quality of brain tumor imaging.

4. Molecular biosciences professor Tanya Paull studies how double-stranded DNA is repaired after it breaks and how pathways to DNA repair affect the development of tumors.

5. Catherine Cubbin, associate professor of social work, is part of a team developing a program that helps low-income women living in Texas rural areas get access to breast cancer screening services and, if cancer is found, resources to help pay for treatment.

6. Edward Marcotte, professor of molecular biosciences is developing a large-scale rapid method for diagnosing and characterizing cancers noninvasively using fluids such as saliva, blood and urine, identifying and quantifying individual peptides or proteins that point to the presence of cancer in the body.

7. In partnership with Marcotte, developmental biologist John Wallingford discovered that the inexpensive antifungal drug thiabendazole slows tumor growth.

8. John DiGiovanni, professor of pharmacy and nutritional sciences, has identified a gene that plays a role in susceptibility to nonmelanoma skin cancer a discovery that could lead to novel strategies for prevention of that form of cancer.

9. Biomedical engineering professor Stanislav Emelianov is engineering nanoparticles that can extract information from cancer cells and relay the information to physicians in real time, allowing for more effective treatment.

10. Debbie Volker, associate professor of nursing, researches ethical issues and end-of-life care for adults with a cancer diagnosis, their families and nurses.

Mary Adams

Mary Lou Adams meets with a patient at the Community Women’s Wellness Center. [Photo: Christina Murrey] 

11. Barbara Jones, associate professor of social work, researches how to improve care for children, adolescents and young adults with cancer or recovering from cancer, including understanding the long-term needs of children who survive.

12. Mary Lou Adams, associate professor of nursing, led the five-year-long African-American Breast Cancer Outreach project, screening 8,000 Texas women, resulting in 100 diagnoses. Adams discovered that fear of diagnosis and therefore avoidance of mammograms was a key reason why African-American women have a 32 percent higher death rate from breast cancer than white women.

13. Erin Donovan-Kicken, assistant professor of communication studies, examines the ways in which cancer patients interact with families and health care providers and how that can lead to beneficial changes in their overall health.

14. Psychology professor James Pennebaker is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing, including surviving cancer.

15. Assistant Professor of nutritional sciences Stefano Tiziani studies childhood leukemia and is working with Dell Children’s Medical Center to identify new metabolic biomarkers that will better predict patients’ responses to cancer treatment drugs, potentially resulting in higher survival rates, less chance of relapse and fewer side effects.

16. Rong Cui, associate professor of pharmaceutics, examines anticancer drug delivery using nanoparticles in an effort to develop cancer treatments that are less toxic to the body.

Kevin Dalby

Kevin Dalby, professor of medicinal chemistry, and Scarlett Ferguson, a recent postdoctoral fellow in the College of Pharmacy, at work in Dalby’s lab. [Photo: Marsha Miller] 

17. Pharmacotheraphy professor Jim Koeller looks at the economics of standardized cancer disease treatment strategies and has performed numerous disease treatment maps for advanced lung, colon and breast cancer.

18. George Georgiou, professor of molecular biosciences, chemical engineering and biomedical engineering, is in preclinical development of highly promising new proteins he developed for treating liver cancer, which has a median survival rate of only eight months.

19. The TherapeUTex Preclinical Core Lab, under the direction of College of Pharmacy faculty member Janet Walkow, prepares drugs for clinical trials, testing safety, effectiveness and delivery method.

20. College of Pharmacy professor Kevin Dalby is working toward creating inhibitors of pathways that go awry in cancer cells.

Students at Work

1. Chemical engineering senior Sai Gourisankar has worked with professor Keith Johnston to design gold nanoclusters for biomedical imaging and therapy to treat cancer and other diseases. His research could help identify malignant cell clusters within a healthy body and allow for pinpoint treatment that would limit damage to the surrounding cells.

2. Biomedical engineering senior Nishu Mehta worked in professor George Georgiou‘s lab for three years, creating a hybrid antibody that binds with combined immune cells, thus having the potential to be a much more potent cancer therapeutic. Nishu, Georgiou and graduate student William Kelton have filed a U.S. patent for the invention of the dual antibody.

3. Texas 4000 is a UT student organization that runs the longest annual charity bike ride in the world, pedaling more than 4,000 miles from Austin to Anchorage, Alaska, to raise funds for cancer research and raise awareness about cancer prevention and treatment. Texas 4000 has raised more than $3.5 million since launching in 2003.