Taking Aim at Cancer


by Laura Tolley

Professor Litvinov, Wilson and LeeIn the ongoing fight against cancer, early detection has become a critical factor in successfully treating the disease. A team of University of Houston researchers is trying to take early detection to the next level by creating a technology that can identify cancer in even the smallest samples of body fluids.

Led by Dmitri Litvinov, UH professor of electrical and computer engineering, the research team has received some impressive help in this important endeavor — a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant will be used to construct and also test the biosensor’s ability to spot cancer protein biomarkers for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia — a blood and bone marrow cancer. The device will use magnetic nanotechnology to locate these biomarkers, which are elevated in patients with the disease, on a single molecule level.

Litvinov’s co-investigators are Richard Willson, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, T. Randall Lee, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair of Chemistry, and Chung-Che “Jeff” Chang, associate member of The Methodist Hospital Research Institute.

“A technology that uses smaller samples that can be taken from patients less invasively and directly detect these miniscule biomarkers could cut back on the complicated steps doctors use now that often lead to errors and false positives,” says Litvinov. “This biosensor could do the same job faster, cheaper and with fewer problems.”

Their hope is to later expand the new technology’s capabilities and use it as an early detection tool for everything from HIV to Alzheimer’s.

Professor Ming HuWhile early detection is critical to successfully fighting cancer, another important element is discovering new treatments. Ming Hu, professor of pharmacy, is co-leading an international, multi-institutional project to investigate the chemopreventive potential of red ginseng extract for lung cancer.

With a subcontract award of nearly $1.1 million to UH, Hu is collaborating with Hong Kong Baptist University to procure and perform phytochemical studies on this herbal material. Hu’s work is part of an overall project led by Dr. Ming You at Washington University School of Medicine under a $1.9 million grant from NIH’s National Institute for Complementary & Alternative Medicine. Using a newly developed lung tumor model, the project is aimed at providing the foundation for future clinical trials.

“Although ginseng has grown in popularity in the U.S. as an herbal supplement, it has been used as a remedy for a variety of ailments in China and throughout East Asia for more than a thousand years,” Hu says.

“We will use anti-growth activities against lung cancer cells as the guide to find more active compounds in ginseng,” Hu says. “These active compounds will then be tested in a human intestinal cell culture model (or Caco-2 model) to determine how much of the compounds could get absorbed in humans in vivo, with the goal of finding anticancer compounds that are both active against lung cancer and bioavailable to humans.”

Also at UH’s College of Pharmacy, a faculty-alumni collaboration has yielded a U.S. patent and a potential new tool in cancer research that involves modifying an existing drug that has been used for decades as an antiparasitic agent.

Diana S-L. Chow, associate professor of pharmacy, and UH pharmaceutics alumnus Dong Liang (Ph.D. ’95) are seeking sponsors and FDA approval for preclinical/clinical trials of their novel oral and parenteral formulations of mebendezole, which received U.S. patent approval last year.

Professor Chow and UH PHarmacy alum QiAn antiparasitic agent is a drug for humans and/or animals that kills parasites and prevents and stops parasitic infections. Mebendezole was first introduced in the 1970s for the treatment of roundworm infection, but it also has proven effective in treating several types of parasitic infections.

Liang is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Texas Southern University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

In research conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chow’s colleagues at The University of Texas-M.D. Anderson Cancer Center discovered that the antiparasitic compound mebendezole possessed significant tumor-killing properties and recruited her to develop novel formulations of the drug. UH later received exclusive rights to the formulations.