Cancer Drug Lead Discovery
Cancer Drug Lead Discovery
Baylor chemists form the tip of the spear in cancer research, probing natural products and molecules whose anticancer agents can be strengthened in tandem with others. Their research has driven drug leads and new approaches to advance their discipline.
- Leader in chemical synthesis who pioneered new strategy to efficiently obtain relevant information from natural products.
- His research provided chemical synthesis expertise to pursue groundbreaking treatment for hypoxic-ischemic brain injury.
- Projects within his Baylor laboratory have led to the acquisition of eight patents.
- Structural biologist and biochemist examining protein and enzyme dynamics.
- His research at Cornell University developed new cryotrapping method to more quickly characterize protein structures undergoing reactions.
- He came to Baylor University with the support of a $2 million Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) award.
- Internationally recognized leader in the synthesis of natural products.
- Came to Baylor through a $4.2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, after faculty appointments at Yale University and Colorado State.
- Was named by the American Chemical Society as the 2023 recipient of the prestigious Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products.
- Organic chemist focused on developing highly selective chemical reactions to advance drug discovery.
- Came to Baylor University with the support of a $2 million Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) award and has earned NIH early career award (MIRA R35) to advance research.
- A Baylor alumna, she studied under Kevin Pinney before postgraduate work at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Synthetic organic/medicinal chemist focused on the design and synthesis of therapeutic agents (often inspired by natural products) for drug lead development particularly for cancer
- Projects funded by agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).
- -Received 2020 Arthur E. Schwarting Award from the American Society of Pharmacognosy.
Q & A With Baylor's Cancer Researchers
Baylor chemists form the tip of the spear in cancer research, synthesizing and modifying the structures of naturally occurring molecules to strengthen their anticancer properties. From their internationally renowned laboratories, these faculty not only contribute to and advance their discipline, but train the next generation of scientists.
Millions in grant funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health and Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or awards from the American Chemical Society, tell only a small part of the story. On a daily basis, faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers search for new cancer drugs through a meticulous process with a demonstrated record both in training students and in the development of novel chemotherapeutics and the strategies and tactics employed to prepare them.
In what has become an incubator for collaborative research, one finds their laboratories within Baylor Sciences Building to be a place where faculty partner on major research projects and leverage the groundbreaking ideas of one colleague with the skills and expertise of another. This culture has served to elevate Baylor’s research enterprise and facilitate the preparation of advanced drug leads that may someday treat cancer and other diseases.
Baylor’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has historic roots at Baylor, but each of you has further advanced its reputation. What led you to Baylor initially?
At the time that I arrived, I'd already seen how things were working at Yale for many years, as well as Colorado State University. In my early visits to Baylor, I could see a glimpse of how committed people were to the notion of growing the research enterprise here.
Our facility, the Baylor Sciences Building, is the best facility that I've experienced in my career. Instrumentation here is better and more accessible than I've had access to before. This has enhanced our ability to recruit both students and faculty. We have instrumentation that can be shared, which was attractive to me and is attractive to new faculty members that might start or continue their careers at Baylor.
John was a big draw, because we had worked together as postdocs and we had remained friends since that time, but it was also amazing to me to see what Kevin Pinney and numerous other colleagues had be doing at Baylor. You realize this work has been ongoing at Baylor for quite some time, and the only thing we could do is add to what was already taking place
I attended Baylor as an undergraduate, and worked in Kevin Pinney’s lab. The department was operating at a high level then, but in the ensuing time, it’s grown even further. As I was finishing up my postdoctoral study at MIT, Baylor was on my radar. The University was pursuing, and later attained, R1 recognition. I’d been keeping an eye on that upward trajectory from a distance—the investment in infrastructure, or new research programs and faculty. The chance to come back here was phenomenal.
While each of you has your own lab and focus, how does the team with whom you work have on your collective impact?
From my perspective, collaboration is absolutely crucial. I had a longtime collaborator in industry who talked about cancer drug discovery like a chessboard. In his description, several of the most important pieces of the chessboard related directly to the initial discovery and subsequent development of the molecule identified as a therapeutic agent. We can break that down even further to the synthesis of many molecules yielding a variety of promising lead molecules, coupled with that extensive complementary biology that plays a crucial role in the development of new therapeutic agents for cancer. I benefit greatly from wonderful collaborations here at Baylor University as well as other universities and industry, who collectively bring a strong team approach that is instrumental in advancing our various research projects.
We have a core group of colleagues here at Baylor University that we can bounce ideas around with, think about molecules together, and work together to challenge and inspire our students and postdocs to guide our ongoing and future research endeavors.
We know of many places that are fairly cutthroat and competitive, even between the faculty in the department. And here, I was welcomed and respected by colleagues who were really excited about the work I wanted to do. I’m supported in a way that I would not have been at many other places. As I begin my independent career, it’s a combination of people that who enable me to be successful alongside excellent facilities.
We are able to complement each other’s skills and support each other’s work in practical ways. One of my undergraduate students, involved in the Baylor Undergraduate MiniPharma Program, is working with Jonathan to make compounds that he needs in his research. That collegiality to me elevates our collaborative work and is every bit as important as achieving R1 status.
What role does mentorship play in your interactions with students?
That’s everything, and it’s a process. I’m coaching them hard at the beginning and eventually what I hope to do is go from a coach to a cheerleader—where they become more independent. Graduate and undergraduate students, early on require a lot of teaching in lab techniques and how to approach research, and my hope is that eventually they'll begin inserting their own ideas and even start to argue with me about research direction in a constructive way. I think that’s awesome when it happens. Our goal is leadership—we’re getting them to where they basically lead and take ownership of a project.
It’s what I experienced in Kevin Pinney’s lab as an undergraduate student. The path I took, coming back to Baylor as a CPRIT Scholar, was a direct result of the opportunities that I had in class and in the research lab as a student at Baylor. Now as a mentor, I see a lot of my students going through many of the same milestones in their journey as I once did– moreso than I would have imagined.
Baylor is a place that encourages and expects high quality research and excellence in teaching and mentorship. That appealed to me. AsI looked at the faculty I’d be joining in the department, they modeled it. It’s inspiring to prepare students as we conduct the research, and has a way of reminding you why it is that you’re doing this work.
In this field, you really never know if anything great is going to come from an individual project. But you can generally be assured if you do your job that good students will develop from the projects, people who are trained to do what it is we do. It’s one thing you can take to the bank in a way. We can never predict whether this compound that we're working on is going to be a great anti-cancer molecule, but I can be sure that this newly minted PhD that comes out of my group is going to be able to go wherever they go next and be able to contribute to what that pharma company's going to be working on, for example.
To the extent that we're going to impact cancer research, having people out there that can provide that expertise to the problem at hand is something we can be sure of. Everything else is icing on the cake, really.
You are scientists at an R1 university with a Christian mission. What does that mean to you?
We’re very unique in that sense. We’re rare as an R1 private university in Texas, and rare as a Christian R1 university. As we think about arriving at this point, it is a reflection and a vision at the same time. Our faith foundation inspires us in the work we do and our interactions with students. It’s a distinction that adds to what we’re going to be able to do as we recruit outstanding faculty and staff, mentor top-notch students and postdocs, and maintain and grow excellence in research and instruction while fulfilling the mission of Baylor University.