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Researchers Study New Anti-Cancer Drug

Therapy Designed to Target Lung Cancer

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Asst. Prof. Jin Xu and postdoctoral researcher Tyler Carter at the Massachusetts BioManufacturing Center at UMass Lowell.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers in the Chemistry Department is studying a new drug developed by a biopharmaceutical company that could someday treat a form of lung cancer.

“The molecule we are working on with Agennix AG is talactoferrin, a manmade, or recombinant, form of a naturally occurring human protein that plays an important role in the establishment and functioning of the body’s immune system,” says chemistry Asst. Prof. Jin Xu, the principal investigator for the project.

The study is currently funded with a $665,000 grant from Agennix AG, a German-based company focused on developing novel drug therapies to combat a wide variety of diseases.

Talactoferrin is being studied for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and is currently undergoing Phase III clinical studies. NSCLC is more common than the other type of the disease, the small-cell lung cancer (the categories refer to what the cancer cells look like under a microscope). 

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and the second most-diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2008 more than 208,000 Americans were diagnosed with the disease and nearly 159,000 died from it. The symptoms usually do not appear until the disease is already at an advanced stage and incurable.

Stimulating the Body’s Defenses 

“Our research has two parts,” explains Xu. “The first is using biochemical, biophysical and mass spectrometric methodologies to thoroughly characterize the various levels of protein structure in talactoferrin. The second is explaining the ‘mechanism of action’ of this potential immunotherapy drug.”

He says patients drink talactoferrin as an oral solution. Once talactoferrin is swallowed, it makes its way through the digestive system. After passing through the stomach, it is thought to bind to cells in the gut wall, which leads to the release of important proteins known as chemokines and cytokines.

“The release of these proteins then triggers the recruitment and activation of immature dendritic cells — white blood cells which form part of the human immune system — in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, the largest immune organ in the body,” says Xu.

Agennix believes these dendritic cells are able to identify tumor cells as foreign to the body and relay this information to other immune cells, namely effector cells, to seek out and destroy the tumor cells. The company is also developing a topical gel version of talactoferrin that “may have potential in treating chronic wounds, such as diabetic foot ulcers.”
Xu is assisted by postdoctoral researcher Tyler Carter as well as by Ph.D. students SriHariRaju Mulagapati, Nirmal Paliwal, Maria Velasquez, Moli Liu and Andrew Downey.
Xu, who lives in Carlisle, worked as a senior scientist in the biopharmaceutical industry before joining the UMass Lowell faculty in 2008. He obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 2000 from the University of North Texas.