News Release

July 5, 2006

Contact: Kristina Goodnough, 860-679-3700

UConn Health Center Cancer Researcher Identifies Compound That Kills Cancer Cells, Not Normal Cells

Farmington, Conn. - Cancer researcher Joan Caron, Ph.D., has identified a new compound that can kill cancer cells without harming normal cells. Caron hopes her discovery could someday translate into a treatment for cancer that lacks the unpleasant side effects that often accompany chemotherapy.

Her research focuses on molecules that affect interactions between cell membranes and microtubules, long filaments in all cells that control cell shape and cell division. Her hypothesis, identified nearly 30 years ago, was that the anchoring mechanism of microtubules to cell membranes could correctly position other organelles for proper cell function. “When I began my research, there was no biochemical evidence in the structure of microtubules to suggest such anchoring and no visible evidence under the microscope,” says Caron, assistant professor of cell biology. She went on to publish her work on the nature of microtubule-membrane interactions, but other scientists remained skeptical.

“Consequently, I had trouble getting federal funding,” says Caron, who has received financial support from Hartford-based Lea’s Foundation for Leukemia Research. “That was instrumental in helping me continue my work,” says Caron. The foundation, which has raised more than $1 million for leukemia research, began supporting her six years ago, first with annual grants of $10,000 for supplies and then with a grant of $45,000 a year to cover the salary of a laboratory assistant. “That has made a tremendous difference,” says Caron who had always worked alone in her lab.

“Currently, I am studying three different models of cancer with the new compound,” says Caron. “I found that the compound kills leukemic lymphocytes, but does not affect normal lymphocytes. When the compound is added to a culture dish with malignant melanoma cells, malignant cells stop growing and spreading. That means they are no longer malignant,” says Caron. “I also developed mutant yeast cells that behave like cancer cells. The compound kills the mutant cells but not the normal yeast cells.”

She feels the discovery is exciting for her personally as a cancer survivor. About three months after Lea’s Foundation began providing funds to support her research, Caron was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Chemotherapy drugs are really tough on you because they kill normal cells as well as the cancer cells. I know because I was studying some of the drugs I was taking.” She believes she may be onto a discovery that would ease treatment for many cancer patients.

Next steps include testing the compound on blood from people with leukemia and on normal blood and then testing the drug on animal models. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” says Caron.

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