ATLANTA—ProDa BioTech, a pharmaceutical research company founded by Zhi-Ren Liu, a biology professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at Georgia State University, has received a two-year, $2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop an effective therapy for pancreatic cancer, which has a five-year survival rate of just 7 percent.
Pancreatic cancer is so lethal in part because it’s difficult for conventional drugs to penetrate the dense fibrotic stroma — thickened, scar-like tissue that surrounds the tumor, protecting it and helping it grow.
“All tumors develop stroma, but in pancreatic cancer, the barrier is particularly dense,” said Liu. “A few years ago, researchers realized this is one of the biggest hurdles in effectively treating this disease.”
The stroma is formed by cancer-associated fibroblasts, cells that produce collagen and other fibrous tissue and are mobilized into service by the tumor. Liu has developed a drug that targets a protein called integrin alpha beta 3, which is expressed on cancer-associated fibroblasts.
“By targeting only cancer-associated fibroblasts, rather than normal fibroblasts, it reduces the side effects of the drug,” said Liu. “Once we get rid of the dense stroma barrier, then the anti-tumor drug can be delivered more effectively.”
Earlier studies in animal models have shown the protein-targeting drug, known as ProAgio, significantly increases survival when combined with an anti-tumor drug. A quarter of the tumors disappeared after being treated with the combined therapy. The drug has also performed well against other treatment-resistant cancers, including triple-negative breast cancer and liver cancer.
The grant will fund toxicology and pharmacokinetic studies that are required to move the drug to early-stage clinical trials. An abstract of the grant, 2R42CA217482-02, is available at the National Institutes of Health’s Project RePORTer website.