July 9, 2014

USC Stem Cell and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center accelerate drug discovery

(Image courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

(Image courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

By Cristy Lytal

Three teams of USC stem cell researchers have won a coveted prize — the opportunity to test 3,000 drug candidates or chemicals for the potential to help patients. Two teams will focus their efforts on cancer, and the third team will search for ways to accelerate the healing of large bone fractures.

The free screens will take place at the new Choi Family Therapeutic Screening Facility, part of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. Andy McMahon, director of the stem cell research center, is sponsoring the bone repair project, and Stephen Gruber, director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, is sponsoring the two cancer-related screens.

The bone repair project brings together Gage Crump and Francesca Mariani, two principal investigators at USC’s stem cell research center. They will test a variety of chemicals to see which ones encourage cartilage progenitors to develop into “ossifying chondrocytes,” a special type of cell that promotes bone growth. Such chemicals would hold promise for healing large fractures in patients.

A second project led by Shou-Jiang Gao, professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, is seeking new treatments for a group of tumors and cancers caused by Karposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, or KSHV. The goal is to use the screening facility to find potential drugs that inhibit or kill tumor or cancer cells, but have no effect on healthy cells.

Amy S. Lee, professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, is heading up the third project. Her team will use the screening facility in their quest for potential drugs to suppress a cancer-promoting protein called GRP78. The protein plays a major role in the growth and survival of a wide variety of cancers, including pancreatic adenocarcinoma.

Courtesy of McMahon and Gruber, all of these researchers will have complimentary access to the screening facility’s extensive chemical libraries, state-of-the-art equipment and trained technicians. The screening facility was recently established with a generous donation from The Choi Family Trust.

“Drs. McMahon and Gruber have sponsored these free screens to encourage translational research at USC,” said Justin Ichida, director of the screening facility and principal investigator at the stem cell research center. “Their goal is simple: transforming today’s discoveries into tomorrow’s cures.”