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UA Little Rock Professor Researches Enhanced Cancer Therapy

A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor is making strides toward developing an effective cancer treatment without the severe side effects of traditional therapies.

Dr. Darin Jones, UA Little Rock associate professor of chemistry, envisions a day when patients can battle cancer without chemotherapy side effects such as hair loss, muscle atrophy and compromised immune systems.

“We are developing a therapy that targets and kills tumor cells, which is unique compared to today’s therapies that are based on nonselective, toxic chemotherapy options,” Jones said.

In partnership with Dr. John Tainer from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Jones received a five-year grant of $795,683 from the National Institutes of Health in 2016. They are also collaborating with Dr. Zamal Ahmed at MD Anderson Cancer Institute.

“Most chemotherapeutic agents as well as radiation therapy kill cancer cells by inducing DNA damage,” Jones said. “They do so in an indiscriminate manner. If the cancer cell is able to repair the damage, the cancer cell survives and perpetuates the disease.”

Within the human body, there are a variety of proteins that cause cells to repair damage to DNA. They are known as DNA repair proteins. Jones and his colleagues are designing and preparing small molecules that prevent these proteins from “turning on the DNA repair process.”

“By blocking the DNA repair process, the damaged DNA is not repaired, which results in the death of cancer cells,” Jones said.

In currently available hormonal cancer therapy, doctors rely on proteins present in the patient’s body. If the patient does not have the necessary protein receptors, the cancer treatment will not work, and its effectiveness could fade over time if a patient were to go into remission and then later develop cancer, Jones said.

Research by Jones and Tainer could provide more options. What makes their research unique is that patients would not need to have a protein receptor in order to receive the treatment.

“If we are successful, it would represent a brand new paradigm in cancer therapy research,” Jones said.

Tainer, who is testing the medicine in this form of therapy, is excited to work with Jones on the project.

“Without a doubt, the creative chemistry from Dr. Jones is the heart of the project and what is driving its success,” Tainer said.

Jones has an extensive background in cancer therapy research. Before joining UA Little Rock, he was a senior scientist in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Washington University School of Medicine and the senior principal scientist and research scientist at Pfizer, a prominent pharmaceutical company.

In 2014, Jones received national attention for his research into dehydroleucodine, a molecule found in Ecuadorian plants. Jones thinks the molecule, often used as an anti-inflammatory and treatment for skin infections, could one day form the basis of a treatment for leukemia.

Research reported in this article was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01CA200231. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Feature photo: Dr. Darin Jones stands in front of a projected image of the crystal structure of the enzyme he is studying to develop an effective cancer treatment without the severe side effects of traditional therapies. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/UA Little Rock Communications.

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