graphic depicting cancer cells with blue, orange and maroon hues

Targeted Teamwork

UMass Amherst and UMass Chan Medical School researchers team up to find revolutionary ways to target cancer cells.
Sankaran ‘Thai’  Thayumanavan stands at a lab bench

Sankaran ‘Thai’  Thayumanavan

UMass Amherst researchers are working together in partnership with UMass Chan Medical School’s new Cancer Center to answer a not-so-simple question: What can be done to specifically deliver a drug to cancer cells while keeping a patient’s healthy cells working?

To find the solution, chemistry professor Sankaran ‘Thai’  Thayumanavan and veterinary and animal sciences professor D. Joseph Jerry are approaching the problem from two different angles — Thayumanavan is utilizing his extensive knowledge on drug delivery systems, while Jerry focuses on animal models to assist with the research.

Bringing together these researchers under the Cancer Center umbrella will certainly spawn many innovative approaches to substantially improve human health.

Sankaran ‘Thai’  Thayumanavan

Thayumanavan’s and Jerry’s partnership capitalizes on a breadth of experience between the two researchers, as well as extensive knowledge on drug creation and their effects on the human body. In 2019,Thayumanavan was awarded the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for his paper entitled Shrink-wrapped Proteins as Next Generation Biologics, a study that addresses major challenges in delivering protein-based drugs and devices across a cell membrane while keeping the protein stable and avoiding unwanted immune system responses.

"Thayumanavan is a very creative scientist who has a remarkable ability to turn fundamental chemical understanding into new materials that solve real-world problems in biomedicine,” says chemistry professor Richard Vachet. “His work is a great example of how UMass Amherst researchers are doing translational research.”

Dr. Joseph Jerry sitting at his office desk

D. Joseph Jerry

That propensity for problem solving is a powerful addition to Jerry’s lengthy career of cancer research, specifically on genetic variations and the effects of estrogen on the early stages of breast cancer. Jerry, in collaboration with the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute, and Baystate Medical Center, has researched premalignancy in the human breast and is working on developing diagnostic tools to identify high risk women. Such tools would allow for hormonal therapies at an earlier, more effective time point for cancer patients than currently possible.

This research "expands the number of genes affecting breast cancer risk. It also reveals that faithful maintenance of DNA is an essential feature that contributes to breast cancer,” he explains. “The research groups are now working to translate these results to understand why there is such diversity in risk of breast cancer among women.”

Armed with their data, the two scientists are now part of a team of UMass Amherst faculty and UMass Chan Medical School researchers to elevate their studies in the school’s new Cancer Center. The center aims to advance the cancer control continuum in patients of all ages and with all types of cancer, through cutting-edge research, excellence in education, community-based outreach, and the delivery of compassionate, patient-centered care.

"The solutions to the challenges of cancer diagnosis and treatment lie at the boundaries of what we know and the intersection of disciplines," says Jerry. "Collaborative work with clinicians and researchers, along with input from patients, provides the insights that stimulate innovative strategies."

Scientists and clinical researchers in the Cancer Center have been recruited from around the world and are leaders in their field, focusing their efforts on groundbreaking basic, translational, clinical, and population research. Thayumanavan and Jerry have been chosen to work on experimental therapeutics and cancer genetics teams, respectively, to seek solutions to delivering drugs to cancer cells.

"The complementarity and the synergy of the approaches to cancer therapy by the researchers from both campuses are truly exciting," notes Thayumanavan. "Bringing together these researchers under the Cancer Center umbrella will certainly spawn many innovative approaches to substantially improve human health."

This article was published on February 4, 2022.

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