Pharmacy researcher fights cancer, pain with new drug

Dr. Dai Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, and Dr. Hamed Aly-Ismail, post-doctoral research associate, views the results of research on pancreatic cancer cells.

Dr. Dai Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, and Dr. Hamed Aly-Ismail, post-doctoral research associate, views the results of research on pancreatic cancer cells.

Many diseases cause us to change personally. Some diseases cause us to want to create change for others.

Dai Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, tackles multiple diseases and disorders in his research, including pancreatic cancer, cerebral disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries, and metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity. He collaborates with scientists nationwide in order to find ways to battle diseases that cripple family and national budgets. 

Dr. Lu’s father died of pancreatic cancer in 2003. The hopeless and helpless feeling he experienced at his father’s bedside influenced his commitment to search for an effective cure for pancreatic cancer, which is one of the deadliest types of cancer. At present, most patients are diagnosed at a late stage because symptoms do not appear until the tumor grows to a significant size. By then, cure is not feasible since the cancer has already spread beyond the pancreas to other organs. According to the American Cancer Society, one-fifth of Americans diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive for a full year, and 94 percent die within five years.

“There are no indications that we cannot manage pancreatic cancer as we have done with other types of cancer such as colon and breast cancer,” Dr. Lu said. “There are just more challenges because pancreatic cancer is a highly invasive malignancy and the metastatic cancer cells are very resistant to currently available chemotherapies.”

He emphasized that better treatments and, ultimately, cures for people with pancreatic cancer begin with scientific research.

 Disabling pain together with malnutrition and jaundice are the most common symptoms in patients with pancreatic cancer. Pain management is one of the most important and difficult aspects of palliative care for inoperable pancreatic cancer. Approximately 90 percent of patients ultimately develop severe or intractable pain that quickly leads to deterioration of the quality of life and performance status of pancreatic cancer patients.  

Teresa Olszewska,

Teresa Olszewska,
post-doctoral research associate, prepares a sample in Dr. Dai Lu’s lab at the Texas A&M Rangel College of Pharmacy.

Lu has been working to find new types of chemotherapeutic drugs that both kill pancreatic cancer and suppress the cancer pain at the same time by targeting a special G-protein coupled receptor that belongs to the biological system responsible for cannabis effects. Dr. Lu said that pancreatic cancer cells have more type 2 cannabinoid receptors than do healthy cells. Drug molecules that selectively activate this receptor can induce cancer cell death without affecting normal pancreatic cells. When given to mice with pancreatic tumors, the molecule prevented tumor growth  and suppressed the spread of cancer to healthy organs. Meanwhile, this class of compounds generates painkillers comparable to morphine’s pain killing effect. His research, in collaboration with other researchers, has had promising results in the testing stage. It will begin the drug development stage with grant support from state and federal resources in the next few years.

Dr. Lu’s lab is also researching new ways to treat acute and chronic brain disorders such as traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Lu is investigating a drug that can augment the effects of some of the brain’s own molecules that can prevent inflammation before or after injury that are linked to the biological system responsible for cannabis effects. Recently Dr. Lu’s lab discovered new molecules that potentially can protect the brain from traumatic and inflammatory injuries. These molecules are in early drug discovery stage. His research is currently pending financial support from the National Institutes of Health and Department of Defense to advance the research.

Recent data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that approximately 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury annually.  The direct and indirect costs of traumatic brain injury in the U.S. are estimated at $48.3 billion annually.

“Given the enormous impact of traumatic brain injury on this nation, our research may someday help millions of people including men and women who serve in military forces and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Dr. Lu said.

The Texas A&M Rangel College of Pharmacy opened its door to students in 2006 to meet a critical need in the South Texas community where there is a shortage of pharmacists. Today, 103 out of 309 of the college’s graduates have returned to South Texas to help underserved populations. The college’s leadership strives to entrench a culture of excellence, education, research, practice and patient care to each professional student enrolled. Guided by a set of core values that are referred to as five-C’s (care, concern, courtesy, compassion and competence), the Texas A&M Rangel College of Pharmacy continues to advance the profession of pharmacy and to enhance the quality of peoples’ lives in South Texas, Texas and beyond.  It is ranked in the Top 50 for pharmacy programs in the country within a record time, as per the recent US News and World Report rankings.

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