Another significant step forward in the fight against cancer was made possible in part by BYU scientists’ research. The mechanism by which a gene called TNK1 becomes an oncogenic driver of cancer was discovered by Dr. Josh Andersen, director of the University’s Fritz B. Burns Cancer Research Lab. TNK1 is found in all cells, but when it is mutated, it becomes dangerous and can transform normal cells into cancer cells.
This places TNK1 in a subset of cancer-causing genes. “You can think of cancer engines as the engines that drive cancer growth and progression,” Andersen explained. Andersen and his colleagues also discovered how TNK1 gene mutations cause cancer. Given that only a few other genes, such as TNK1, are known to scientists, this is a significant discovery. Andersen has spent years researching 1433, a cancer-promoting protein found in unusually high concentrations in cancer cells.
His research, along with that of Oregon Health Sciences University’s Dr. Jeff Tyner, has led to a better understanding of TNK1 and how it functions as a cancer factor. After discovering TNK1 six years ago, Andersen and a group of Ph.D. students set out to understand its properties to design and develop a new drug to treat TNK1-related tumors. “The goal here is targeted therapy,” Andersen explained.
Being able to provide cancer therapy that only targets the cancer maker, the engine that causes cancer to grow, will allow people to live longer, healthier lives free of cancer. Andersen contacted Dr. Steve Warner, senior vice president and head of US research at SDP Oncology, an international company that discovers and develops cancer cures with a branch in Lehi, Utah, and asked him to assist in the development of a TNK1-targeting drug. Warner, Andersen’s former classmate, was overjoyed at the prospect of working together again.
“When we were students at BYU, we became friends and were bonded by our mutual desire to pursue other studies and careers in biomedical research,” Warner recalled. “This was the first time we worked collaboratively on a project to develop a drug for TNK1. ” Although developing a new drug is never easy, the research and data Andersen has shared with SDP Oncology have given their researchers a solid foundation on which to build.
SDP Oncology scientists began developing compounds that would target TNK1 in cancer cells. We will design and synthesize 20 or 30 potential drug candidates, then test them in various laboratory experiments. The findings of these studies have assisted us in understanding how to improve the drug interaction with TNK1 while also balancing the need to maintain other properties required for a viable drug.
“The preclinical results of the drug, known as TP5801, are extremely promising. Dr. Andersen’s previous research made it possible for us to identify and optimize a TNK1 development candidate quickly.” Warner said. “In TNK1-induced cancer models, the drug has been discovered to have a high level of activity.” Human testing of the drug is now underway, with phase 1 clinical trials set to begin soon.
Andersen has been working on TNK1 with Chrissy Egbert, a doctoral student at BYU, and Dr. TszYin Chan, along with a team of university researchers, for the past six years, and they are thrilled to see their hard work published. Chan explained, “I’ve been a part of this project for six years.” “For Egbert, participating in meaningful research during his graduate studies has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“Before coming to BYU, I had very little experience doing real, relevant research,” Egbert explained.”Being a part of the TNK1 project was a really exciting experience. Being able to uncover unknown information and connect things to begin to understand TNK1 and its role in cancer has broadened my knowledge and skills.” “I am grateful to BYU for all of the opportunities it provided me during my Ph.D.”
(Stahle & University, Scientists discover a new cancer-driving mechanism, develop a new drug to treat it 2021)