U granted $5 million for anti-cancer development

by Craig Gustafson

The University received a four-and-a-half year, $5 million grant Thursday to develop new anti-cancer drugs from bacteria and fungi.
The National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, created the grant to advance its initiative of discovering new materials with anti-cancer potential.
“The overall goal is to create a drug that acts like a magic bullet, seeking out cancer and killing it,” said Dave Sherman, director of the University’s microbiology, immunology and molecular pathobiology graduate program.
Sherman said chemotherapy has been the most successful cancer killer in recent years, but while chemotherapy kills harmful tumors, it also destroys normal human cells.
“The holy grail is to find something that goes only after the tumor,” he said.
Officials said the grant boosts the University’s visibility as a cutting-edge, cancer-research institution.
“This puts Minnesota on the map as a leading institution in the discovery of new anti-cancer drugs,” Sherman said.
The award comes on the heels of this month’s $10 million private donation for a new microbial and genomics building.
One of the most promising places for researchers to find new anti-cancer agents are the oceans. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi are prime targets because there are so many undiscovered organisms there.
The research will use new technology developed by Sherman and his colleagues last year to apply microbial genomics to new organisms in generating anti-cancer drugs.
Ashley Haase, head of the microbiology department, said the purpose of microbial genomics is to acquire a genetic map of microorganisms. That information is then used to figure out how to manipulate the material and bring about new chemicals.
“It sounds a lot easier than it is,” Sherman said.
Two things are needed. First, a large number of molecules are required to screen for anti-cancer activity. Second, compounds need to be tested against certain cancer-cell lines to let scientists know whether they will be successful as anti-cancer agents.
“It’s like a lot of pieces to a puzzle being put together,” said Hung-Wen Liu, a McKnight distinguished professor of chemistry. “The NCI knows this is one of the most promising approaches, so they solicited proposals.”
He said the NIH had money set aside for exactly this type of research. The grant, however, was not set aside only for the University.
Four other institutions will collaborate with the University on the project. They include the University of California-Santa Cruz, Oregon State University, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.