Fighting the Good Fight


Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States, responsible for nearly one in every four deaths each year. But it’s got a formidable opponent in The University of Texas. In October, UT students in campus chapters of Delete Blood Cancer and the American Medical Student Association teamed up to host UT’s Cancer Awareness Week, featuring speakers, panels, and documentary screenings.

Researchers on the Forty Acres—many of whom have very personal ties to the disease—are also doing their part.

“I had family members with cancer,” says John DiGiovanni, a pharmacy professor and one of UT’s leading cancer researchers. “I decided early on that I wanted to do research either to prevent cancer or treat it.”

And now DiGiovanni and many of his UT colleagues are doing just that. Here’s a look at five ways Longhorn researchers are aiding the fight against the big C.

High-Risk Patients

DiGiovanni and his team have uncovered a gene that predisposes people to nonmelanoma skin cancers, like basal cell carcinoma, which affect more than one million people each year. In addition to environmental factors, certain genetic traits, like skin color, influence susceptibility to skin cancer. UT researchers are working to identify what makes an individual more prone to skin tumor development, and how we can better prevent these cancers in patients who are genetically high-risk. Discovering genes that play a role in skin cancer, DiGiovanni says, may also have implications for other cancers.

Real-Time Diagnoses

Nicknamed the Swiss Army knife of cancer treatment, biomedical engineering professor Stanislav Emelianov’s new invention uses sound, light, and nanotechnology to detect, treat, and monitor cancer development. The all-in-one device is able to speed up diagnosis using noninvasive photoacoustic imaging to gain information about tissue changes, and identify specific medicine tailored to an individual patient’s needs.  Thanks to the detailed information the tool provides, nanoparticles loaded up with cancer-fighting drugs can then be delivered to cells in a targeted way.

Reprogrammed Cancer Cells

Assistant biomedical engineering professor Amy Brock is trying to eliminate some of the unpleasant side effects of breast cancer treatment. Her approach is twofold: on one hand, she’s looking into how to “rehabilitate” or reprogram cancerous cells, rather than killing them all through radiation and chemotherapy—treatments that are often hard on the patient. She’s also investigating whether breast milk ducts can be used as a channel to deliver cancer-fighting drugs directly to the source, which would eliminate the need for them to travel through other parts of the body.

Customized Treatment

Armed with a $2.3 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Institute of Texas, pharmacy professor Kevin Dahlby is investigating the role proteins play in cancer to better customize treatment for patients. Dahlby is specifically looking at protein kinases, or key regulators of cell functions that often go awry in cancer cells. His team is studying how these proteins function differently in healthy and diseased cells, so that they can potentially develop inhibitors tailored to each patient’s genetic make-up.

Painless Testing

Detecting skin cancer often calls for painful, invasive, and scarring biopsies—but hopefully not for long, thanks to biomedical engineering professor James Tunnell. Tunnell has developed a pen-sized instrument that uses light pulses, instead of blades, to quickly and painlessly get information from the skin. Within a few seconds, the tool takes a measurement and determines whether or not a lesion is cancerous. Tunnell’s inexpensive device is now in clinical trials.

Photo courtesy Thinkstock.


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