UNCW’s Sridhar Varadarajan and Arthur Frampton Finding New Ways to Beat Breast Cancer

Monday, November 08, 2021

An exciting breakthrough discovery of therapeutic treatments that could help breast cancer patients experience fewer side effects is in the early stages of development at UNCW. Sridhar Varadarajan, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Arthur Frampton, professor of biology and marine biology, have recently reported their collaborative research on this new class of cancer drugs in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.  

While traditional chemotherapy drugs affect every cell in the body, which can cause undesirable side effects and even trigger other cancers, these new molecules being developed in the labs of Dobo Hall can selectively seek and destroy only the breast cancer cells. Varadarajan and Frampton report this will minimize side effects in patients such as hair loss, gastric irritation, immune suppression, and secondary cancer. 

“Current chemotherapies have a sledgehammer approach to treating cancer cells,” explained Frampton. “These new compounds we are developing are very selective, more like a scalpel, targeting specific cancer cells and leaving the healthy cells alone.” 

This multidisciplinary research has been underway for many years, conducted by multiple UNCW undergraduate and graduate students and involving collaborations with scientists from East Carolina University, Texas Christian University and Duke University.  

“This level of research is not normally done with undergraduate and graduate students. It is usually Ph.D. and postdoctoral research at larger institutions that leads to this level of findings, but we are unique,” said Varadarajan, who has worked with 51 undergraduate students and 18 master’s students on targeted cancer research for nearly two decades.  

“UNCW has equipped our departments with excellent research instrumentation and support. Without it, our students could not do this type of work. If we can do all this now, imagine what we can do as we develop our pharmaceutical chemistry Ph.D. program as a designated R2 institution,” Varadarajan added. 

Varadarajan’s lab is just one flight of stairs away from Frampton’s lab, making it convenient for students working on the research to collaborate. 

Graduate student Caprice McNeely has been working on this research for two years.  

“In Dr. V’s lab, I am doing the chemistry part, actually making the compound and preparing solutions. Then, I literally scoop it up and walk it to Dr. Frampton’s lab. The proximity makes it so much easier to do the kinds of tests we do and reduces wait times on results.” 

Once she receives the compound, graduate student Jenny Black, who has been running the experiments in Frampton’s lab, applies it to cancer cell samples to test and evaluate efficacy. Using the same building blocks of the breast cancer research, Black is now targeting prostate cancer cells.  

“It gives me a big rush when I see the compounds doing what they are supposed to be doing. It is thrilling to be a part of this research, knowing I can have an impact in the scientific field,” said Black. 

“We are learning a lot about ways to attack cancer through this work,” said Frampton. He and Varadarajan hope that their latest findings will lead to targeted treatments for all types of cancer including prostate and brain cancers.  

“Ultimately, we expect that patient suffering will improve once such drugs reach the market,” said Varadarajan. “We now have solid proof of principle that it is possible.” 

UNCW’s dedication to advancing research is a key component of its Strategic Plan. The university earned the elevated designation of “Doctoral Universities: High Research Activity” (R2 institution) by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education in 2018. Plans to launch a Ph.D. program in pharmaceutical chemistry in fall 2022 are underway. 

-- Krissy Vick