Wellesley Professor and Students Identify Promising Anti-Cancer Agent

February 17, 2012

A team of Wellesley researchers has recently found a promising lead in the fight against pancreatic cancer.

In 2006, a naturally occurring compound, angelmarin, was isolated from the root of a Japanese medicinal plant. The compound was found to exhibit anti-cancer activity, specifically against pancreatic cancer. Dora Carrico-Moniz, assistant professor of chemistry at Wellesley, set out to find out more.

Together with her Wellesley students, Carrico-Moniz began to prepare the compound artificially in her lab, and made modifications to get a better understanding of why the compound acts the way it does. Recently, their research paid off big with the discovery of a new compound, which exhibits potent activity against pancreatic cancer cells and is easier to synthesize than the original compound.

 “We’re thrilled,” Carrico-Moniz says. “We know we’re going in a great direction. We’ve got a great lead on our hands.”

What makes this discovery particularly interesting is that the isolated compound targets cancer cells specifically. Most cancer drugs on the market today target both normal, healthy cells and cancer cells—accounting for the grueling nature of chemotherapy, which brings hair loss and other side effects to many who go through the treatment.

“The development of a drug that only targets cancer cells has been very challenging,” Carrico-Moniz says. “At this moment there are no drugs that specifically target cancer cells that are nutrient-deprived.”

Alumnae Tehsina Devji '11, Claire Reddy '09, and Christina Woo '08 were the lead authors on a publication of this discovery,  “Pancreatic Anticancer Activity of a Novel Geranylgeranylated Coumarin Derivative”  in the journal Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters. All three alumnae are currently pursuing graduate work at Yale University.

“Students have played an enormous role in this research,” Carrico-Moniz says. “I am here to help them, guide them, and brainstorm ideas.”

Wellesley students Maria Jun ’14, Alyssa Bacay ’14, and Julia Solomon ’13 are following up on this exciting discovery, and evaluating the biological activity in collaboration with Professor Andrew Webb of the Biological Sciences Department. Ultimately, the group hopes to identify an optimal compound suitable for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.