Chemist Bill Malachowski Receives National Institutes of Health Grant to Research Possible Cancer Treatment

Posted September 8th, 2011 at 2:38 pm.

bill225When talking about the research funded by his latest National Institutes of Health grant, which focuses on designing and synthesizing compounds that will inhibit the body’s production of an enzyme called indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) as a possible cancer treatment, Chemistry Chair Bill Malachowski uses a metaphor that sounds more like a Hollywood movie script than a grant proposal.

“The immune system is working like a police helicopter in your body, looking for unusual activity, and when it comes across something it sends in your antibodies to take care of it,” explains Malachowski. “Cancer is a bit of a mystery, because the surfaces of most cancer cells do look different from a non-cancerous cell, and yet that police helicopter still doesn’t report anything and the disease spreads. What we think might be happening is that cancer cells are spitting out IDO to scramble the body’s radar. If we can inhibit the activity of IDO, we might allow the body to react to the cancer before it’s too late.”

Malachowski’s latest research builds upon earlier work done by him and researchers from Lankenau Hospital (with which he applied for both grants) on IDO inhibitors.

In 2005, the researchers at Lankenau, after reading about research suggesting that IDO played a role in immune-system response for pregnant women, came up with the theory that the enzyme may play a role in cancer development.

“A report was published that theorized that the reason a pregnant woman’s immune system doesn’t attack a fetus is that IDO is present in the placenta. The Lankenau researchers picked up on that and wondered if the same thing might be happening in the bodies of cancer patients,” explains Malachowski.

While the initial grant did produce some successful compounds, the NIH decided that there were too many toxic side effects to warrant continued funding after it expired in 2008.

In writing this grant, Malachowski and his fellow researchers were careful to zero in on research that looks at deficiencies in the present experimental lead compound rather than just framing the work as a continuation of the previous grant.

“There’s a lot of interest right now in looking at how cancer interacts with the immune system as a possible treatment and our work is definitely a part of that,” says Malachowski. “It’s very exciting to be involved with something that could potentially benefit so many people.”

The five-year grant was awarded in August and will bring nearly $425,000 in funding to the college, which will be used to fund the salary of an undergraduate research assistant and for a graduate-student fellowship.

This is the third grant Malachowksi has received in recent years.

In 2010 he received an Academic Research Enhancement Award grant from the NIH to develop synthetic chemistry tools that might facilitate the development of new antibiotic treatments. That award also included funding for a fellowship for a graduate student and provided a summer salary for an undergraduate to do 10 weeks of full time lab work.

A January 2010 NSF grant paid for the College’s acquisition of a $250,000 nuclear magnetic resonance instrument.

“It’s equivalent to an MRI but looks at a single molecule rather than an entire organ,” explains Malachowski.

All totaled, Malachowski has brought nearly $1 million worth of grant funding in support of research and teaching to the College in the past two years.

“It’s great to be here at Bryn Mawr and to be able to involve both undergraduate and graduate students in this work,” says Malachowski. “Most small colleges don’t have these kinds of robust research activities. The fact that we have a graduate program really helps a lot in terms of successfully applying for these grants and it’s a dynamic that’s fairly unique to Bryn Mawr among the top liberal-arts colleges.”

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