Physicist appointed to $3-million cancer research chair
Written By: Michael Robb
2005-10-19A physicist appointed to the new Allard Research Chair in Oncology believes there is an "epoch-making scientific revolution" going on in biology and that his basic science skills can be employed in unorthodox ways to battle cancer.
Dr. Jack Tuszynski intends to apply an interdisciplinary approach in developing novel chemotherapy drugs and new methods for treating cancer.
Trained as a basic scientist with expertise in one of the most fundamental disciplines, physics, Tuszynski finds himself fascinated and engaged in one of the most applied fields - finding ways to combat cancer.
Tuszynski will bring his knowledge of spectroscopy, condensed matter physics, non-linear physics, statistical physics and biophysics to the task of trying to reduce the numbers of lives claimed by cancer. For more than a decade, the physics professor has been exploring, at a fundamental level, protein modeling and pharmacokinetics. Specifically, he's conducted research on tubulin, a protein indispensable for cell division, whose specific variants are over-expressed in cancer.
With detailed knowledge of tubulin's structure at the level of individual atoms, Tuszynski and his team are using computational power to design drugs to combat cancer with reduced side-effects to healthy cells. His team has designed several new chemical structures intended for chemotherapy and is developing new treatment methods in his lab with on-going efforts to refine them.
The next stage involves testing the new drugs both in vitro and in vivo, he explains, pointing out that they may be particularly effective against ovarian and breast cancers.
Tuszynski's career took a major turn in 1997 when, at a conference he organized in Banff, he was inspired by the work presented by Dr. Kenneth Downing, a scientist in the Life Sciences Division at Berkeley. That team crystallized the structure of tubulin, a major target of cancer drugs. Microtubules, formed from tubulin, are now known to be critical to the structure and function of cells and the process of cell division. Inspired by Downing's work, Tuszynski re-aligned his research towards computational simulations for proteins referred to in technical terms as molecular dynamics.
Tuszynski's research is also directed at cancer's resistance to drugs and how to combat that process - one closely associated with cancer's ability to mutate and resist effective chemotherapy. His group is now beginning to address some of the fundamental questions about why tumour cells develop drug resistance.
"I'd like to be able to focus on protein expression in specific types of cancers with a keen eye on understanding the molecular mechanisms behind the development of drug resistance during chemotherapy," he said.
That work will be assisted enormously due to the existence of the extensive tumour bank at the Cross Cancer Institute, he points out, as well as a number of state-of-the-art labs located in the Division of Experimental Oncology.
Longer term goals also intrigue Tuszynski. "To be able to either design new drugs at the molecular level or re-purpose existing drugs that are patient-specific is our ultimate goal." And, he adds on a philosophical note: "In my opinion, the epoch-making scientific revolution that's going on right now is in biology, not physics."
But he also believes that the revolution in biology may be aided by both the knowledge of physics and by applications of physical techniques, both experimental and computational. He and his team are pioneering methods of attacking cancer cells by using finely tuned ultrasound, lasers, magnetic and electric fields. Tuszynski believes that there may soon be novel physical ways developed for attacking cancer cells' fundamental structures, thus preventing them from being able to replicate.
He expects his move from physics to oncology will mean working more closely with colleagues in medical physics, oncology, nanotechnology and basic scientists in medicine, a prospect he finds exciting.
"We're excited about the skills in computational biology that Dr. Tuszynski will bring to the fight against cancer," says Department of Oncology Chair and Cross Cancer Institute Director Dr. Carol Cass. "He has already established important research collaborations with clinicians and basic scientists at the Cross Cancer Institute, which should generate new therapeutic approaches in both ovarian and breast cancer."
In addition to the Alberta Cancer Foundation's $3-million Allard Chair, his team is also funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the federally supported network of centres of excellence called MITACS, the U.S. Department of Defense, Technology Innovations, a private biotech firm in Rochester, NY, and Oncovista, a private pharma startup in San Antonio, Texas, both of which are funding his work on synthesis and testing potential anti-cancer compounds. Jointly with his long-term collaborator, Dr. John Dixon of the University of Warwick, Tuszynski has been recently awarded a major grant from the Leverhulme Foundation in the UK.
(Michael Robb is public affairs officer for the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry.)
This article originally appeared in ExpressNews