Dr. Zhiqiang An
Dr. Zhiqiang An

One of the newest weapons in the fight against cancer is targeted treatment that increases the effectiveness of care and reduces the damage to healthy non-cancerous tissue.

This treatment involves proteins called antibodies that can be engineered to latch onto tumor cells and disrupt their growth. Multiple therapeutic antibodies have been approved for patients, but some tumors are resistant to this treatment.

Dr. Zhiqiang An, a leading therapeutic antibody researcher who directs the Texas Therapeutics Institute (TTI) at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), recently received a $900,000 grant to figure out how some tumors evade this therapy.

With this information, An, whose grant is from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), hopes to develop a way to counteract the tumors’ resistance to antibody treatment.

“This research could improve the success of immunotherapy drugs and, in turn, lower mortality rates,” An said.

“Dr. An’s outstanding academic program exemplifies the important translational research mission of the IMM,” said Dr. John  Hancock, executive director of the  IMM and the John S. Dunn Distinguished University Chair in Physiology and Medicine.

Antibodies are a part of the body’s natural defense against cancer. However, cancers can evade this defense mechanism by breaking them down.  “We’re developing therapeutic strategies to counter tumors’ resistance to both naturally occurring antibodies and therapeutic antibody immune therapies,” An said.

Dr. George Stancel, executive vice president for academic and research affairs and holder of the Roger J. Bulger, M.D., Distinguished Professorship, said, “This award to Dr. An demonstrates UTHealth’s and the TTI’s commitment to translating basic biological discoveries into products and technologies that will be used to treat disease and improve health.  Dr. An is clearly one of our leaders in this area, and his work will have widespread application.”

An is collaborating on a $2 million grant from CPRIT with Dr. Chengcheng “Alec” Zhang,  of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

While there are many types of cancer, An and Zhang’s research is focused on a type of leukemia, which affects tens of thousands of people in the United States. In particular, they are developing a therapy for the treatment of leukemia that is based on an antibody that has proven effective in a mouse model of leukemia.

“If all goes well, we will have an anti-leukemia antibody that is ready for a clinical trial,” said An, professor of molecular medicine and the Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry.

An, Hancock, and Stancel are on the faculty at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.

The Texas Therapeutics Institute was established in 2010 and it is jointly funded by the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and The University of Texas System.

CPRIT was approved by a constitutional amendment in 2007 and supports groundbreaking cancer research and prevention programs and services in Texas.

-Rob Cahill, Office of Public Affairs