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Undergraduate research with faculty: Making fluorescent iron-depleting agents for cancer therapy and imaging

Emily assists Professor Chong with her NIH-funded cancer research.

Emily assists Professor Chong with her NIH-funded cancer research.

Professor Chong’s lab specializes in interdisciplinary research to realize safe, effective, and targeted therapeutic and imaging drugs for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Her team is developing drugs for diseases that can be employed for various targeted therapeutic and diagnostic techniques such as antibody-targeted radiation therapy (RIT), iron-depletion therapy (IDT), and magnetic resonance (MR) and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging.

The goal is to generate cancer drugs linked with smart tracing peptide or antibody targeting antigen such as prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA) and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) to deliver the cytotoxic (cell-killing) agents and/or imaging probes directly to the cancer cells without causing toxicity to normal cells.

The lab has developed several promising cancer therapeutic and diagnostic agents with successful preclinical profiles that compare favorably with existing cancer drugs. Its RIT study published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry was highlighted in publications including Cancer Weekly, Clinical Oncology Week, and Biotech Business Week. Research results have led to a U.S. provisional patent application. Professor Chong has received two National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards totaling about $1 million.

A native of Lake Forest, IL, Emily Mick worked on developing a novel iron chelator as an antitumor agent in Professor Chong’s lab as an Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend recipient. The body needs iron to function, but too much free iron is harmful and associated with diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Taking iron from the body using an iron chelator – little molecules that selectively bind to iron – has been shown to slow or stop the growth of tumor cells. Eventually, Emily’s ligand will be evaluated using the HeLa (cervical cancer) and HT29 (colon cancer) cell lines.

Emily transferred to IIT from Lake Forest College in part because she wanted a “more intense” lab experience. “All day long I asked questions,” she said. With plans to go to pharmacy graduate school, Emily said of her experience, “It was perfect. It definitely applied to what I want to do next.”