$200K grant to aid UTSA chemist Donald Kurtz in researching cancer therapy

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Iron (left) attacks cancer cell

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(Nov. 30, 2010)--Lutcher Brown Distinguished Chair Donald Kurtz in the UTSA Department of Chemistry has been selected to receive $199,906 from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to develop a novel approach to delivering iron at toxic levels to kill cancer cells and tumors. The two-year research project is considered "High Impact High Risk" and if successful could have a tremendous impact on cancer therapy.

"Iron is essential for all cells in the body to function properly and is safe up to certain levels -- however, the cells' iron transfer process is highly regulated," said Kurtz. "If we overload cells or tissues with iron, it becomes toxic. Our goal is to develop a method for delivering iron at toxic levels specifically to cancer cells."

Over the next two years, Kurtz and his research team will focus on developing a photochemical or light-activated cancer therapy. A nano-scale protein scaffold filled with approximately 2,000 iron atoms in its hollow center will drive the treatment. The scaffold will include peptides on its outer shell that will allow it to be recognized specifically by cancer cells. The peptides would make the scaffold bind to the cancer cells like Velcro.

Once researchers deliver the iron-loaded scaffold to cancer cells, they will zap the scaffold with tissue-penetrating, near-infra-red light. The light treatment will cause the scaffold to release its iron into the cells. The released iron will induce the production of free radicals, which, at sufficiently high levels, will overwhelm the cell's anti-oxidant capacity -- thereby killing the cells. The peptide on the outer shell of the protein scaffold can be varied to target specific types of cancers such as breast or prostate.

"The basic idea is to use light as the trigger to shoot iron out of our protein scaffold and into the cancer cells," said Kurtz. "Think of it as shooting iron bullets to kill cancer." Kurtz joined UTSA's faculty in 2006 after serving 20 years on the chemistry faculty at the University of Georgia. He is a specialist in bioinorganic chemistry and studies metalloenzymes such as non-heme iron enzymes at the molecular level.

Established by Texas voters in 2007, CPRIT will invest up to $3 billion for groundbreaking cancer research, prevention programs and services in Texas.