Cutting-Edge Research At SMU Could Help Advanced Medical Treatments
By Cathy Frisinger
In his third-floor laboratory in Dedman Life Sciences Building, biologist Robert
Harrod and his team are zeroing in on a new way to inhibit the virus that causes
AIDS. They already have shown that their approach, which involves the rare
genetic disorder Werner syndrome, works when the disorder’s enzyme defect is
introduced into cells. Now they are trying to find practical ways to use this pathway
to inhibit the AIDS virus.
The beauty of this approach is that the AIDS virus will not be able to mutate in a way
that can defeat this treatment, says Harrod, associate professor of biological sciences in
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.
Down the hall from Harrod’s lab, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Jim Waddle
is preparing to file for a patent on a tiny “worm” that is expected to be highly useful in
drug-testing, producing results far more quickly than tests run on larger lab creatures.
Meanwhile, their colleagues, Associate Professor Pia Vogel and her husband, John Wise,
a lecturer in the Biological Sciences Department, are conducting work that may have implications
for cancer treatment.
With young faculty member like Harrod, Wadle and Vogel working on cuting-edge conundrums, and a recent $3.6 million gift to biological sciences, the department is poised to play a high-profile role in biology advances in coming years.
In university laboratories throughout the world, enormous strides have been made in
biology research in recent years, including the mapping of the human genome. With
young faculty members like Harrod, Waddle and Vogel working on cutting-edge conundrums,
and a recent $3.6 million gift to Biological Sciences, SMU’s department is poised
to play a high-profile role in biology advances in coming years, says William Orr, chair
and professor of biological sciences.
The gift from philanthropist and SMU Board of Trustees member Caren Prothro and
the Perkins-Prothro Foundation includes $2 million for an endowed chair, $1 million for
an endowed research fund, $500,000 for a graduate fellowship fund and $100,000 for an
undergraduate scholarship fund.
The endowment will enable the University to attract a biologist with a national reputation
in research to join a faculty that is strong in cellular and molecular biology and biochemistry
and is doing research that could have practical applications in medicine, Orr says.
For example, Vogel and Wise are looking for a way to improve the long-term efficacy of
chemotherapy treatments. Wise uses a nautical metaphor to explain their work: “Picture a
cancer cell as a ship on a sea and the chemotherapy being dumped into the ship, there’s a
mechanism like a sump pump that will dump that chemical back overboard,” he says.
That cellular “sump pump” is important to normal cell health because it keeps toxins out.
“Of course, with cancer cells that are targeted for destruction by chemotherapeutics, you’d
like to be able to turn off that mechanism,” Wise adds.
Vogel explains that many cancer cells respond to treatment by pumping out more and
more of the toxins as time goes on, so that a cancer treatment that works well initially
might not work as well in later stages. “Switching chemotherapy drugs doesn’t help because the cancer cells just pump out everything, resulting in
multi-drug resistance,” she says.
Using Electron Spin Resonance Spectroscopy, a biophysical
technique that obtains structural information about the cellular
pump, Vogel’s research group is trying to find a way to shut off the
ATP energy usage by this cellular sump pump. “If you can knock
out the pump, you can sink the cancer ship.” Vogel’s colleague Robert Harrod, who studies retroviruses that infect
humans, focusing on transcriptional gene regulation, is working
on a mechanism that might sidestep a more specific type of multidrug
resistance – of the virus that causes AIDS to the conventional
HAART (highly active antiretroviral treatment) drug regimen.