Big Ideas

Joseph Landry, Ph.D.

If the cat chases the mouse long enough, the little critter might just become tenacious enough to turn around and growl. Call it fight or flight … kill or be killed. It’s all about self-preservation; it’s an instinct to stay alive, and every living thing has it. Even cancer.

When Dr. Joseph Landry submitted his application for a V Scholar Grant, the mouse had already turned and growled at him. Rather than start the chase again, he decided to change the game.

“Our immune system can detect and destroy cancer cells. Tumors have evolved ways to avoid the immune system. Over time, they develop mutations. By the time it’s present and big enough to cause an effect, that tumor has evolved many ways to suppress the immune system. We are designing ways to shut off those mechanisms,” said Landry, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University.

With his 2011 V Scholar Grant, Landry was able to support his hypothesis. Using his grant funding, he discovered a novel protein complex, which is used by cancer cells to suppress the immune response. It is commonly used by tumors of the breast and skin. Now that the protein complex has been identified, it means the second part of the puzzle can snap into place – a treatment can be created that can be used by cancer patients.

“Our next step is to design a drug. Somebody has made a tool compound that inhibits some functions of the protein complex [that tumors use to hide from the immune system]. But the problem with this particular compound is that it doesn’t bind so well to our protein, so in terms of medicine, you would have to give someone so much poison to see a result. But, we could tweak that compound to bind better to the protein, and through that process, you get a drug in a pill form that interacts with your target. In a couple of years, it could be used effectively. Within five years, we could look to clinical trials,” Landry explained.

Certain cancers are more likely to mutate. Breast, melanoma and lung cancers are the three most common that pose that challenge. Treating them requires the physicians to consistently monitor their genetic make-up because once that changes, the current treatment must change also. Landry’s research aims to give treating physicians more effective tools. His quick success and eye on the future means we wouldn’t have to wait on cancers to change and then react – we could simply stop them from changing.