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Duquesne Pharmacy Professor receives Fourth Concurrent NIH Grant

Dr. Aleem Gangjee, Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Duquesne University’s Mylan School of Pharmacy, has received a $1.33 million research grant from the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This makes the fourth NIH research grant Gangjee currently holds, totaling $5.3 million. The grant money is used to pay graduate students’ stipends and for testing, and to purchase equipment, chemicals and other materials. The five-year award to Gangjee, who specializes in designing molecules that thwart cancer cells, was pre-funded, meaning it started before the requested start date and the federal government’s new fiscal year because of its high priority score.

“The fact that Dr. Gangjee’s drug research has been funded four different times within three years by the NIH, the country’s premier research organization, speaks volumes about the quality and importance of his work,” said Dr. Heinz W. Machatzke, associate academic vice president of research. “His promising drug discoveries continue to focus on new methods of fighting cancers while exponentially reducing unwanted side effects elsewhere in the body.”

Gangjee’s latest grant focuses on selectively starving tumors formed by some cancers, especially aggressive ovarian and breast cancers, as well as some varieties of brain, liver and renal cancers.

“Tumor cells need nutrients to grow rapidly,” Gangjee explained. “Usually, they cannot get the amount of nutrients they need under normal circumstances in the body. So they sprout special receptors, almost like tiny antennae, that are very, very specific in the types of proteins they attract.”

This latest grant will allow Gangjee to refine his preliminary designs of four anti-cancer agents that fool cancer receptors into thinking they are nutrients instead of deadly invaders.

“Once inside, the compound blocks the process that is absolutely crucial for the tumor cell’s survival,” Gangjee said. “Essentially, what we’ve done is selectively target certain types of tumor cells.

“It appears to work without harming normal cells, which is a critical attribute. Since there are no other compounds that compare to this mechanism, there is no yardstick, but our tests show that of more than 1,000 molecules that invade the tumor, only one enters a normal cell.”

For Gangjee, whose grandmother died of breast cancer, a weapon against cancers that works without harming healthy cells “is actually what dreams are made of.”

Gangjee is working in collaboration with the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, which is performing further tests on the compounds.

He humbly credits teamwork, including graduate students, a supportive University atmosphere and his collaborators. “All of these things are team efforts; everything has to fit right in place,” he said. “As with all discoveries, Providence has a hand in this.”  

Provisional patents have been issued for these compounds; Duquesne holds 18 active patents that protect Gangjee’s innovations and some are in the process of being licensed to a pharmaceutical company.

“Once again, Aleem Gangjee is at the forefront of cancer research, pitting his talents against these diseases,” said Dr. J. Douglas Bricker, dean of the Mylan School of Pharmacy. “We’re proud of his tenacity and the potential positive impact of his work for so many who are suffering.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.