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Pharmacy professor working to improve cancer drugs
Dr. Zac Walls

JOHNSON CITY (March 14, 2016) – Dr. Zac Walls arrived at East Tennessee State University in 2011 and has been working ever since to improve drugs used to treat certain cancers.

An assistant professor in the Gatton College of Pharmacy, Walls currently is focusing much of his research on doxorubicin, one of the most successful drugs used in the treatment of ovarian cancer.

“I’m trying to reformulate the drug to make it even better,” Walls said.

Due to the way the chemotherapy drug enters a cancer cell, much of it gets trapped inside an endosome, which is the compartment inside the cell that is the drug’s first stop on the way to its destination in the nucleus, Walls explained.

“My idea was to co-encapsulate the drug with a protein called Listeriolysin O,” Walls said, explaining that the pore-forming protein provides an exit for more of the chemotherapy drug to escape from the endosome and reach its intended target.

Through a grant from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, Walls has been able to pursue his hypothesis and an article on his findings was published earlier this year in the journal, Molecular Pharmaceutics.

“Encapsulating the protein with the doxorubicin has greatly enhanced the effect of the drug on both drug-susceptible cells and drug-resistant cells,” Walls said. “This formulation enables the drug to get to the part of the cell where it needs to be and overcome the resistance mechanisms that those cells express.”

That’s good news for women suffering with ovarian cancer.

“If this works in further testing, it could have a pretty big impact,” Walls said. “There are going to be more manageable cases of ovarian cancer. There is also the possibility that this will reduce the dose these patients have to have, so it could save them from suffering the terrible side effects that are normally associated with chemotherapeutics.”

It’s also good news for Walls.

“Science is kind of like baseball in that even the best players in the world go up to the plate and are only going to get a hit three times out of 10,” he said. “You deal with a lot of failure, so to have something you worked on for so long and thought so much about be right and come true, that is very rewarding.”

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