Grad student wins innovation award for research on promising cancer-fighting agent

Shuang Zhou had long wanted to become a doctor.

But her own physician father discouraged her from the occupation, saying it was too stressful and exhausting.

Still intrigued by human health, Zhou decided to become a different kind of doctor. When she came to NDSU in 2010 as a graduate of China Pharmaceutical University, she focused on a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences. In the process, she could devote herself to research. “And then I could help many more people,” she says.

Already, Zhou’s goal is becoming reality. She recently won the product category in NDSU’s Innovation Challenge ’14, a competition that recognizes student teams for new,

NDSU student Shuang Zhou recently won the product category in NDSU’s Innovation Challenge ’14.

progressive products and services. The 27-year-old doctoral student headed NewCure, a research team that is developing a new therapeutic agent for neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that most commonly affects children and infants. NewCure’s project won a $5,000 first prize, as well as  $1,000 for the overall People’s Choice honor.

Zhou and her team focused on an agent called salinomycin, a common antibiotic for animals, which emerged as a promising cancer-fighting compound several years ago. It’s hopeful news for the one-in-three people who will develop cancer during their lifetime, she says.

Up until recently, cancer specialists have had to rely on a blunt-instrument approach when it came to treating cancer. Most chemotherapy is designed to kill fast-growing cancer cells, but will also indiscriminately wipe out fast-growing healthy cells, such as cells in hair and the digestive tract. (This explains why chemo patients lose their hair and develop serious nausea.). And while chemo or radiation will destroy the bulk of tumor cells, they will not eliminate cancer stem cells, a small population of cells within tumors that drive tumor growth and recurrence. As a result, conventional treatments often cause major, long-term side effects and a higher risk of cancer relapse.

But salinomycin is a “smart” drug. In 2009, MIT and Harvard researchers screened 16,000 natural and commercial chemical compounds to identify those which most effectively inhibited breast cancer stem cells. Salinomycin not only spared healthy cells, it showed 100-fold greater potency at inhibiting cancer stem cells than paclitaxel, a commonly used breast-cancer chemotherapy drug.

Working with adviser Erxi Wu, Zhou’s team expanded testing of salinomycin to human neuroblastoma cells. Neuroblastoma is one of the most commonly diagnosed forms of solid tumors in children and infants, and is a leading cause of mortality in children.

They also studied salinomycin’s effects on medulloblastoma, brain cancer, cells and pancreatic cancer cells. In all three cases, they discovered the agent markedly inhibited cell proliferation and the formation of tumorsphere, a spheroid composed of cancer stem cells.

Although salinomycin shows great potential, researchers still hadn’t pinpointed the exact mechanism that makes it work at the molecular level. So the NewCure team did extensive screening to determine how the drug might affect specific molecules within cancer stem cells. They identified two proteins as the binding factors to specific molecules in cancer stem cells. Elevated levels of either of these binding factors could indicate poor prognosis for neuroblastoma patients, Zhou says. This could help cancer researchers develop screening and prognostic kits for the cancers that NewCure studied.

The next steps for Zhou’s salinomycin work are to proceed on to animal studies and develop a screening kit. And because the antibiotic has already been tested and used on mammals for years, it may take less time to hit the market as a cancer drug, Zhou says.

Besides her recent NDSU award, Zhou also will travel to San Diego in late April to accept a Young Investigator Award from the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.

Despite the kudos, Zhou is quick to point out that her research resulted from Wu’s mentorship and the hard work of her team, research associate Fengfei Wang and graduate student Ying Zhang.

Their success is more than Zhou could have hoped for when she was checking out graduate programs in the United States. She came to NDSU because of Wu, an assistant professor in pharmaceutical sciences, who enthusiastically encouraged her to come to Fargo to pursue her research. “Together we can cure cancer,” he told her.

Now, Zhou believes she could truly find a solution to help cancer patients.

“This is even bigger than my original dream,” she says.

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