USC Center for Molecular Pathways and Drug Discovery Aims to Interrupt Pathways in Cancer Cell Development and Growth

Monday, May 17, 2010:

Michael Kahn (left), professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, provost’s professor of medicine and pharmacy and co-leader of the USC GI-Oncology program, and Heinz-Josef Lenz, professor of medicine and preventive medicine, associate director of clinical research at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, Kathryn Balakrishnan Chair for Cancer Research and co-leader of the USC GI-Oncology program.
Michael Kahn (left), professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, provost's professor of medicine and pharmacy and co-leader of the USC GI-Oncology program, and Heinz-Josef Lenz, professor of medicine and preventive medicine, associate director of clinical research at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, Kathryn Balakrishnan Chair for Cancer Research and co-leader of the USC GI-Oncology program.

The USC Center for Molecular Pathways and Drug Discovery was announced May 11 at a special dinner that included members of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center Advisory Board. The center was created by Michael Kahn, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, provost’s professor of medicine and pharmacy and co-leader of the USC GI-Oncology program, and Heinz-Josef Lenz, professor of medicine and preventive medicine, associate director of clinical research at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, Kathryn Balakrishnan Chair for Cancer Research and co-leader of the USC GI-Oncology program.

The center was designed in collaboration with the Keck School, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Eli and Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC.

The center sprang from a partnership between Kahn, a research scientist and Lenz, a clinical translational research investigator that began more than two years ago with the goal of bringing together basic science and clinical science to develop new drug therapies and rapidly translate them into the clinic.

"The unique aspect to this program is that rather than picking drug targets, we are picking drug pathways," said Kahn. "Pathways incorporate many different targets simultaneously. It’s like the 10 freeway, where there are many exits, or targets. We are trying to shut down the whole freeway."

Most cancer research has focused on one target at a time. Cancer cells, with their voracious survival instincts, find ways to bypass single targets that have been shut down. By focusing on networks of targets, the USC Center for Molecular Pathways and Drug Discovery intends to control hubs where disease cells’ pathways intersect, and correct the cells' communication "maps."

Lenz called the new center “a unique marriage between clinical research and basic science, a real bench to bedside approach.”

"We hope this center will be the mechanism, or pipeline, for faster translation of novel promising molecules to bring them into the clinic more quickly," he said.

One of the first products slated to come from the USC Center for Molecular Pathways and Drug Discovery Center and into the clinic will be the first drug specifically targeting the Wnt pathway, a network of proteins that is fundamental in the development of all major human organs, as well as blood diseases and solid tumors.

"We have taken samples from Heinz’ patients and put them into mouse models to show that the Wnt antagonist we developed is effective," Kahn said. A clinical trial to prove effectiveness in humans is planned to start in the summer of 2010, he said.

"The new center can get the right people together to identify inhibitors of pathways critical for diseases, and move forward more effectively," Lenz said.

The center will be housed in the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, scheduled to open in fall 2010.

Leslie Ridgeway Back