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UNCW researchers develop, test new ways to treat cancer

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 6:44 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The frontiers of science, usually reserved for PhD programs, are now in the hands of students at UNCW.

Amid the dripping test tubes and swirling solutions, the labs in Dobo Hall contain compounds with the power to change lives.

“We have now made compounds which can go specifically to breast cancer cells and when they get to breast cancer cells, they can damage the DNA in the breast cancer cells, and that damage leads to the death of the cell,” said professor Sridhar Varadarajan.

The project could help breast cancer patients experience fewer side effects by leaving healthy cells intact. Researchers believe that only targeting the cancer cells will minimize hair loss, gastric irritation, immune suppression, and secondary cancers associated with some traditional chemo treatments.

Varadarajan and his graduate student, Caprice McNeeley, handled the organic chemistry component, actually making the formula themselves, but needed someone who understood cellular biology to test it, which is where UNCW associate professor Art Frampton and grad student Jenny Black came in.

“It’s really rewarding. It’s really cool just to think that we can, you know, do our part to help people develop new therapies,” said Frampton. ”We’re learning not only a lot about these anti-cancer agents and how they work, but we’re also learning quite a bit about the basic biology of the cancer cells themselves.”

The project is more than a decade in the making, but its victories haven’t come without significant setbacks.

The research was delayed by years after the lab was decimated by Hurricane Florence. Their equipment, chemicals and all the compounds they had developed were lost.

“His lab did a great job of ramping back up production of the compounds and so we were able to complete the breast cancer study and get that published, and now we’re moving on to investigate prostate cancer,” said Frampton.

Researchers fought against mother nature and a pandemic, and they’re still pushing on and chasing therapies to ease the pain of the people they love.

“Everyone has connections to people who have had cancer, my own family, my sister had cancer, and my mom has cancer now,” explained Varadarajan.

It will take years of trials and formulations before it can get to patients, but the most difficult part of the process is already behind them now that they’ve found their chemical compound.

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