Dr. Zhiqiang An
Dr. Zhiqiang An

Dr. Zhiqiang An, director of the Texas Therapeutics Institute of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases, received a $5.3 million grant to establish a facility to help scientists advance their research into anticancer antibodies.

The five-year grant is a Core Facilities Support Award from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Antibodies, a critical part of the body’s immune system, fight infections and cancers. Anticancer antibodies can be engineered to seek out cancer cells with high target specificity and fewer side effects.

“We’re helping scientists translate their cancer discoveries into new treatments,” said An, the grant’s principal investigator and the Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry at UTHealth. “A majority of the monoclonal antibodies generated in academic laboratories do not advance beyond basic discovery stage.”

One reason, according to An, is that many researchers do not have access to some of the highly specialized protein engineering technologies. However, the new Therapeutic Monoclonal Antibody Lead Optimization and Development Core, managed by An and Dr. Ningyan Zhang, is making antibody platform technologies available to Texas-based researchers.

“This award to Dr. An exemplifies 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,” said Dr. George Stancel, executive vice president for academic and research affairs and holder of the Roger J. Bulger, M.D., Distinguished Professorship at UTHealth.

A number of anticancer antibody treatments, including trastuzumab and rituximab, are already available to patients, but more are needed, An said. “We’re developing lots of treatments for the same types of cancer. We need treatments for other types,” he said.

“Dr. An is a world leader in antibody drug discovery with previous experience in industry. This grant will enable him to take his efforts to the next level,” said Dr. Philipp Scherer, one of An’s collaborators, director of the Touchstone Center for Diabetes Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and holder of the Gifford O. Touchstone, Jr. and Randolph G. Touchstone Distinguished Chair in Diabetes Research at UT Southwestern.

“I feel privileged to work with someone of his caliber. He is an excellent collaborator, and I am looking forward to expanding our efforts with him,” Scherer said.

Researchers who could benefit from the new facility include Dr. Rong Li, a professor of molecular medicine and co-leader of the Cancer Development and Progression Program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, whose laboratory has identified a protein on the surface of fat cells that mediates the communication between tumor and fat cells, leading to advanced cancer.

“With the CPRIT funding and expertise from the UT anticancer antibody core, we hope to develop an antibody that can specifically inactivate this cell-surface protein and therefore block the tumor-fat cell communication, with the ultimate goal of relieving obesity-associated cancer burden,” Li said.

According to a 2012 report by the Texas Cancer Registry, an estimated 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in his or her lifetime. In 2011, cancer costs in Texas were estimated at $28.1 billion.

An’s grant was one of 21 recently conferred to scientists in The University of Texas System by CPRIT. The combined grants exceed $41 million.

One of An’s TTI colleagues, Dr. Kendra Carmon, received a $200,000 CPRIT grant to develop antibodies that can deliver anticancer toxins to cancer sites with fewer side effects. Carmon works in the laboratory of Dr. Qingyun (Jim) Liu, co-director of the Texas Therapeutics Institute and holder of the Janice Davis Gordon Chair for Bowel Cancer Research at UTHealth.

CPRIT’s goal is to expedite innovation in cancer research and product development, and to enhance access to evidence-based prevention programs throughout the state.

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

-Rob Cahill , Office of Public Affairs