By: Sharon Basaraba
Like a proud parent, computational biophysicist Jack Tuszynski is reflecting on what he and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to create over the last 15 years: a promising treatment for late-stage bladder cancer. Now, the drug is poised to begin its first human trials at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute (CCI), where it was fully conceived and developed.
“It’s the culmination of a long journey during my time as an experimental oncologist at the Cross,” Tuszynski notes. He’s currently a professor of physics at the University of Alberta, and remains a member of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta.
“It’s already making history! Taken all the way from its initial design to testing at the CCI, it’s the first made-in-Alberta drug that kills cancer cells directly to be used in a clinical trial.”
Appropriately named CCI-001 to commemorate its pioneering role, the drug had its origins in computer software rather than in the lab.
“As a biophysicist, I’m interested in the forces, energies and velocities within living cells as they divide. To fight cancer, a disease in which cells divide out of control, we need to know the detailed structure of proteins involved in cell division so we can target them specifically. Then we can create drugs that will bind with cancerous cells and leave healthy cells unscathed.”
Modelling with super-computers was key. Using newly-revealed protein structures, Tuszynski developed a computer program to find which among millions of chemical compounds would successfully attach to potential protein targets. The possibilities seemed endless, but the strategic data processing approach was much more efficient than laboratory testing through trial and error.
“This type of computational drug discovery was only possible thanks to the generous support we received from the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Allard Foundation here in Edmonton. Employing sophisticated, predictive software requires massive computer processing capacity, which is why drug development is usually in the domain of large pharmaceutical companies. These foundations provided the very expensive hardware and funding we needed.”
The Allard Foundation supports health, education and family research and programs, including the AllardChair in Experimental Oncology at the University of Alberta held by Jack Tuszynski from 2005-2020.
For director Chuck Allard, it’s not just philanthropic, it’s personal.
“My father was a doctor and established the foundation in the 1970s,” says Allard. “He had lung cancer when he passed away, and my mother also had cancer. We hear about family and friends being diagnosed every week, including younger people in their 30s and 40s, and we are very committed to fueling progress against this destructive disease.”
Tuszynski also credits the CCI within Alberta Health Services for providing a fertile environment to work out design challenges among cancer research and clinical colleagues.
“We’re all in one place, surrounded by medical doctors who are seeing cancer cases in clinic every day,” he explains. “It’s our number one advantage! The ability to brainstorm with other experimental oncologists, drug discovery experts, and explore the needs of clinicians is a huge advantage.”
Beyond the rich opportunities for professional collaboration, he says working at the Cross has been extremely inspiring on a personal level.
“When you see these dedicated specialists working with and on behalf of patients every day, your motivation goes through the roof. It’s such a powerful feeling that you are on a mission. If you fail, you don’t just fail yourself, you fail all these people. That’s really what is driving me.”
Even more exciting, he says, is early evidence that CCI-001 could also be effective against advanced colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
The CCI-001 drug begins phase 1 clinical trials this fall to rule out possible adverse events. Phase 2 trials will assess effectiveness and proper dosing of the drug, followed by wide-scale phase 3 trials to test on a broader population.
Meet The New Allard Research Chair
In July 2021, the University of Alberta’s faculty of medicine and dentistry announced Dr. Frederick West as the new Allard Research Chair in Oncology. This position is supported by the generosity of the Allard Foundation and the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Originally from Arizona, Dr. West moved to Edmonton in 2002 to join U of A’s faculty of science as a chemistry professor. Since then, he’s participated in several important cancer research projects, including the development of new tumour-imaging agents that have clinical potential in treating drug-resistant cancer. Dr. West has also served as the co-director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta, interim department chair and is currently the acting dean in the faculty of science. In a press release from the U of A, Dr. West says, as the Allard Research Chair, he “is looking forward to enhancing both the translational research pipeline at the U of A and the entrepreneurial landscape for biomedical research in the province.”