Computational Biologist Awarded Nearly $2M Grant to Study Effects of Common Drugs on Major Diseases

Rachel Melamed Image by Brooke Coupal
Biological Sciences Asst. Prof. Rachel Melamed is studying how common drugs may impact cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

By Brooke Coupal

Could a drug meant to treat people with high cholesterol or blood pressure also help prevent cancer or Alzheimer’s disease?
Biological Sciences Asst. Prof. Rachel Melamed is looking for answers.
Funded by a five-year grant of nearly $2 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Melamed is examining how commonly prescribed medications for various medical conditions may impact cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are among the leading causes of death in the United States.
“The goal is to find common drugs that could improve disease prevention and possibly be repurposed for treatment,” says Melamed, a member of UML’s Center of Biomedical and Health Research in Data Sciences.
One way to study the effects of common drugs on cancer and Alzheimer’s disease is to run clinical trials that track people taking the medicine; however, Melamed says this option can be highly expensive and time-consuming. Instead, Melamed and Ph.D. students Panagiotis Nikolaos Lalagkas and Jianfeng Ke will use existing data sources to analyze a large variety of medicines, such as statin drugs (used to lower cholesterol) and metformin (a diabetes medication).
“We’re going to look into all the drugs that we can to see if they have any association with these diseases,” Melamed says.
Using available health records, Melamed and her research group plan to create a computational model to investigate whether people who have taken a common drug have a different risk of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease compared with those who didn’t take the drug. The model will adjust for the patient’s health history, isolating the effect of the drug on the two major diseases.
“People who are taking these drugs are doing so for a medical reason,” Melamed says. “We want to disconnect from that reason and ask, ‘If you randomly gave a person this drug, would you expect them to have a lower risk of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease?’”
Melamed will also be examining genetics data. A lot is known about the genes involved in cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as how common medicines affect the body based on their intended uses. Melamed and her team are working to connect those two pieces of information to see how common drugs might interact with the genes that drive the diseases.
“Using health records and genetics data can provide a more robust insight into drugs that might impact these diseases,” she says.
While the hope is to discover common medicines that could prevent and possibly treat cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, the data analysis will also shed light on drugs that may increase a person’s risk for either disease.
“Our findings have the potential to immediately impact clinical care,” Melamed says.