On the other side of the planet, two Queen’s researchers—Andrew Craig and John Allingham—found a toxin that could improve the treatment of aggressive cancers off the coast of Japan.
According to the researchers, the toxin, identified as mycalolide B, is found in sponge compounds. It’s able to target actin, a protein involved in a cell’s ability to change shape, divide, and move to different sites within the body.
“For me it was a pretty exciting opportunity to collaborate across different disciplines,” Craig said in an interview with The Journal. “[Dr. Allingham and I] co-supervised a couple of graduate students that were working through the screening of different cancer cell lines with the toxin.”
The team was able to show that the cells could be killed by the toxin found in the sponges, preventing their spread throughout the body.
Allingham, a Queen’s associate professor in biochemistry and molecular biology since 2007, first encountered these sponge compounds as a postdoctoral fellow in structural biology at the University of Wisconsin in the early 2000s.
Craig first came to Queen’s in 2002 for a faculty position in biochemistry, and is the principal investigator at the Cancer, Biology and Genetics Division at Queen’s University’s Cancer Research Institute. With his lab, he experimented with the use of mycalolide B—proving the potential effectiveness of the toxin in cancer treatments.
Meanwhile, Sarah Nersesian, MSc ’18, and Rodette Williams, MSc ’16, are graduate students who made key contributions to the study, according to the researchers.
The research team’s approach towards cancer therapies is collaborative. They hope their work can improve, rather than replace, current treatments.
“With this project we’re trying to supplement the types of drugs that might be available by going after the required components for the cancer cells to move about, rather than thinking about adding another drug that would limit the rapidly dividing cells,” Craig said.
The research team is currently working to synthetically develop mycalolide B. The choice to recreate the toxin is to ensure it won’t be removed from its ecosystem.
The development also allows the toxin to differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells with increased potency of the sample. Dr. Andrew Evans, a Queen’s professor and synthetic chemist, was a major contributor to the project’s development of simplified, but equally potent, forms of this sponge compound.
The study has focused on aggressive cancers, which have a tendency to metastasize and spread to other areas of the body. However, the research isn’t ready for treatment yet.
One of the biggest obstacles the team has encountered within their research is funding. Both professors expressed gratitude towards the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
“We’re using what nature has made as inspiration for a new way to deal with cancer […] although the compound that comes from the sponge has very striking activity against cancer, [it’s] not in a form that is administrable as a drug,” Allingham said in an interview with The Journal.
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