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    MARCH 24, 2005
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Skorski receives $900K grant to research leukemia treatment


Center for Biotechnology co-director Tomasz Skorski has been awarded $897,650 by the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (DoD-CDMRP) to develop new therapeutic strategies that will stop mutagenesis in chronic myelogenous leukemia cells, which makes them resistant to treatment.

The three-year grant is the second Skorski has received from the DoD-CDMRP in the past eight months. He previously received an 18-month, $100,000 grant to investigate the molecular mechanisms that cause mutations in leukemia cells, making them resistant to drug treatment targeting the cause of the disease, BCR/ABL oncogene.

“The oncogene that causes chronic myelogenous leukemia is known,” said Skorski, a Scholar of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of America and a leader of the Molecular Carcinogenesis Section in the center. “There has been a small molecule developed that targets this oncogene. It’s a very specific compound targeting the oncogene. It was a real breakthrough in cancer treatment in general and was very successful in clinical trials.”

But, Skorski warned, the molecule is not a miracle drug, and the leukemia tumor cells are able to outsmart researchers because the oncogene mutates itself.

“You have a billion leukemia cells expressing this oncogene,” Skorski said. “You apply this drug and you kill almost all the leukemia cells except the last few, which harbor mutations in BCR/ABL oncogene and cause the disease to relapse.”

He said the oncogene is able to change its genetic information within a matter of months, and the specific drug designed to target the oncogene can no longer attack the tumor cells.

Skorski, who was involved in the testing of the new drug during its development, said he is slowly but consistently learning the mechanisms that cause the oncogene to mutate.

“Now we want to answer the question, ‘What can we do to stop these mutations?’” Skorski said. “If you stop these mutations of the oncogene, you extend the efficiency of the treatment by this compound. We have to understand how these mutations occur, then we need to pinpoint the weakest links and attack them.”

Skorski pointed out that scientists are developing new drug compounds to attack the mutated oncogene and that “changing the drug is going to help, but only on a temporary basis. We need to attack the source of these mutations.”

- By Preston M. Moretz