Cullen Taniguchi with the TrueBeam in Radiation Oncology
Big Ideas

Cullen Taniguchi, M.D., Ph.D.

Cancer is a deadly disease, and it can take aggressive forms of treatment to rid it from the body. However, Dr. Cullen Taniguchi of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is hard at work in the research lab looking into ways to help protect patients’ normal cells while still fighting cancerous cells.

Taniguchi, who both treats patients and works in the lab with a focus on pancreatic cancer, has seen far too many patients who become so weak that they cannot continue their treatment. He uses the analogy of having a medicine that works well, but tastes so bad that the patient cannot swallow it.

While the concept of protecting the normal tissues in the body from chemoradiation damage is simple, Taniguchi has found it difficult to do this without also protecting the tumor. This led his focus to EGLN enzymes. “EGLN enzymes are found in abundance in normal tissue, but not in cancer cells,” said Taniguchi. “When you give a drug that blocks the EGLN proteins, tissues heal faster, and since these enzymes are often not present in high levels in tumors, EGLN inhibitors don’t protect the cancer.”

This has been a particularly helpful discovery for Taniguchi’s work with pancreatic tumors, because the intestines are very sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation and can be easily damaged when giving standard treatment to a pancreatic tumor.

Taniguchi’s focus is a bit of a change from the norm in cancer research. Treatment has historically been focused on how to kill the cancer first, and worrying about the toxicity second. He hopes that more research in line with his current focus could help change that.

“These innovative ideas could never be funded by conventional mechanisms. A small amount of early stage funding for researchers like me could pay big dividends down the road.”

“We describe side effects from a medication as a patient’s ability to “tolerate” a drug. What if we could flip everything around and start by deciding that we want to protect the patient first and keep them whole?” said Taniguchi. “That way you could get fewer side effects and when you need to, increase the intensity of treatment to kill the cancer without causing undue harm to our patients.”

This kind of outside the box thinking is the key to continuing to move cancer research forward and develop new, thought-provoking ideas. And funding from the V Foundation makes less-popular types of research possible. “The idea of normal tissue protection isn’t very popular because of a fear of protecting the tumor. I think hurting the patient might be even worse!” said Taniguchi. “This is why the V Foundation support was so important to me. These innovative ideas could never be funded by conventional mechanisms. A small amount of early stage funding for researchers like me could pay big dividends down the road.”

Outside-the-box ideas, critical thinking and the willingness to explore new areas of research are all unquestionably important to the future of cancer research. And with talented doctors and researchers like Dr. Taniguchi dedicating their life to the cause, we know we will continue to see big ideas that provide new momentum towards victory over cancer.