Progress on the Path to Cancer Cures

Kristiina Vuori
Kristiina Vuori, M.D., Ph.D.

Progress on the Path to Cancer Cures

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is dedicated to finding new ways to fight cancer. Since our founding in 1976 as The La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, our research has been guided by the belief that the most substantial breakthroughs come from studying the basic mechanisms of cells and the molecules that comprise them. The Institute is highly collaborative—merging the talents of biologists with those of chemists, biophysicists, engineers and other scientists—to tackle the great unmet medical challenges of today.

At Sanford-Burnham, we believe collaboration is the catalyst for success. Sanford-Burnham has successfully cross-pollinated ideas that have led to scientific advances by combining our cancer focus with our expertise in other areas, removing the walls between disciplines encourages innovation. Studying bacterial and viral toxins has revealed new strategies to engineer those same toxins to selectively kill cancer cells. Understanding how cancer cells become resistant to chemo and radiotherapies has provided new insights into protecting brain and heart cells from strokes and heart attacks. Deciphering the mechanisms that cause uncontrolled cell growth has informed our thinking about neurodegeneration and the propagation of stem cells.

The interactions between researchers happen daily and can be as significant as a joint grant application or as casual as a discussion following a seminar. The potential for creativity and innovation is expanded by the constant exchange of ideas. Sanford-Burnham’s cancer research is motivated by the quest to discover new cancer-fighting tools. We take great pride in the fact that ongoing research at the Cancer Center at Sanford-Burnham yields tangible medical benefits, including diagnostic procedures and novel therapeutic agents.

Despite these advances, drug discovery remains a lengthy and complex process. Typically, new drug candidates identified against a particular target are synthesized, characterized, screened, and assayed for therapeutic efficacy.

This process usually involves High-Throughput Screening (HTS), in which large libraries of chemicals are tested for their ability to modify or interfere with the target in a selective manner. No perfect drug candidate emerges from these early screening runs. More often, several compounds are found to have some degree of activity, and if these compounds share common chemical features, one or more pharmacophores can then be developed. At this point, medicinal chemists will attempt to use Structure-Activity Relationships (SAR) to improve certain features of the lead compound, which will begin the process of drug development prior to clinical trials.

Drug discovery at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute focuses on the first step of the process; the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics (Prebys Center) was created to allow scientists to screen millions of compounds or small molecules to find the few that could potentially be developed into new therapeutic agents. The Prebys Center is one of four national Comprehensive Centers chosen to be part of the Molecular Libraries Probe Production Centers Network (MLPCN).

The Institute has also been recently selected to be part of the NCI Chemical Biology Consortium (CBC). Membership in the CBC offers an opportunity to participate in highly collaborative drug discovery partnership with the NCI within a network of chemical biologists, molecular oncologists and compounds screening centers from government, academia and eventually industry.

Both networks allow the Prebys Center access to small molecules that can be used as chemical probes to study the functions of genes, cells, and biochemical pathways. The core facility spans a whole range of services, biochemical and cell-based assays, as well as chemistry, cheminformatics, and data management resources, closely integrated to the rest of the program. The Prebys Center provides new ways to explore the functions of major components of cells in health and disease, and bridges the gap between basic cancer research and therapeutic applications.

This report is intended to highlight the progress Sanford-Burnham cancer researchers have made on the path to cancer cures.


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