University researchers advance cancer research

Mary Huber

University researchers announced two significant advances in cancer detection and treatment in August, including a synthetic molecule that may cause cancer cells to self-destruct and an optical device that aids in skin cancer detection.

Chemistry professor Jonathan Sessler, in collaboration with scientists across the globe, created a molecule that transports sodium and chloride ions across cell membranes to cause apoptosis, or cell death.

Sessler said sodium and chloride cause the cell to swell and become thirsty — much like when humans eat salty foods. This forces the cell to take in excess water, and, before it bursts, send signals that something is wrong and cause its own death.

“The cell slowly, and in a programmed way, kills itself off,” Sessler said.

The next step for researchers is to find a way to target the molecule to attack only cancer cells, as well as raise additional funds for animal testing with the hope of one day creating drugs to treat cancer.

“Cancer is infinitely difficult,” Sessler, who is a cancer survivor and is currently undergoing treatment again, said. “It touches everybody’s life directly or indirectly. The joke is I always work on drugs I think I’m gonna need.”

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, which hoped scientists would develop a molecule to target radioactive waste. The team realized it would be a highly effective way to treat diseases like cystic fibrosis and cancer, based on two decades of research into the concept.

“It’s an honor to be a University of Texas professor and have such smart people in my lab who give me an opportunity to go after these dreams,” Sessler said. “The best thing we can do is have an investigative effect and be wiped out in our own science by better competition. Because that will bring us progress.”

Just up the street, in the Biomedical Engineering Building, a team of UT engineers built an optical device the size of a pen that uses light to detect skin lesions in a matter of seconds, potentially saving thousands of dollars in unnecessary skin cancer biopsies.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop it in their lifetime.

“[Doctors] tend to over-biopsy,” biomedical engineering professor James Tunnell said. “You take 50 biopsies to find a single melanoma. There’s a lot of cost in that and a lot of morbidity.”

Tunnell led the engineering team in developing the screening device and has been working on the project for eight years, since his arrival at the University in 2005.

Because of the technology’s non-invasive nature, Tunnell and his team have been able to work directly with patients in clinical trials to perfect the device.

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which previously funded Tunnell’s research, is supporting an additional three-year study of the technology which may result in commercial development of the device for standard use in clinics across the country.