Lisa Porter and John TrantLisa Porter and John Trant, shown in this 2019 photo, have received another $250,000 in research funding from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

Cancer research gets $250,000 boost

Two UWindsor professors developing new therapies for particularly aggressive cancers have received another round of funding for their ground-breaking research.

Molecular biologist Lisa Porter and chemist John Trant have received $250,000 from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research to support their project for another year. They received $250,000 from the institute last year and $100,000 in 2019 for a total of $600,000 to date.

“Our funding has been based on progress,” said Dr. Trant. Combining biology, synthetic chemistry, and computational chemistry, Trant and Porter have gone from doing preliminary research into cancer-related proteins to creating new potential drugs to target those proteins, and devising the computational models and cell assays to test them on.

Trant and Porter’s teams are researching CdKs, short for Cyclin-dependent Kinases, a family of naturally occurring proteins in the body that protect cells from mutating into tumours. Cancers — especially aggressive ones like breast, brain, thyroid, pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancers — hijack these proteins. Researchers have developed drugs made up of synthetic molecules that block these proteins, but they are easily overridden by another protein called Spy1. Porter, who has been studying Spy1 for more than a decade, found a correlation between Spy1 and a specific kinase called CDK2.

“This gave us a target to hit,” said Trant.

Likening the system to a car, Trant explained that normal cells have “gas pedals” called cyclins that speed up cell division, and other proteins that block them and act as “brakes” to slow down or stop the system. When Spy1 is present, cell division has only a gas pedal and no brakes. Trant said he and Porter have found ways to block Spy1 proteins by designing and making synthetic molecules, which may prove an effective cancer treatment.

We have been working to understand what these proteins do in cancer for 15 years,” said Dr. Porter. “We have high hopes that the drugs we are developing will save lives, but we won’t know if our approach truly works until it has been rigorously tested.”

Porter and Trant are refining the science, conducting experiments to determine whether their compounds can penetrate cells to disable them. Next, they hope to create the first generation of drugs and perform toxicology work on them to make sure the body can clear them.

“It’s always easy to kill cancer cells in a petri dish or a mouse,” said Trant. “It’s harder to do it in the human body without hurting the human.”

OICR is a not-for-profit research institute founded by the provincial government in 2005. It has its own team of scientists and it funds researchers across Ontario to accelerate the development of discoveries to benefit both cancer patients and the economy.

Trant and Porter are the first Windsor researchers to receive funding from the institute. The project involves six additional researchers in Trant’s lab and another four in Porter’s, offering training and employment opportunities to students and post-doctoral fellows.

“The progress Drs. Porter and Trant and their teams have made thus far has been outstanding and is a great example of the innovative cancer research happening in Windsor and at universities and colleges across Ontario,” said Laszlo Radvanyi, OICR president and scientific director.

“We are proud to continue to fund this important work to bring new therapies to patients with aggressive cancers.”

—Sarah Sacheli