York Professor Imogen Coe targets cancer

Although treatments like chemotherapy can help to fight cancer, they are not always sensitive to the needs of the individual. But what if doctors could design targeted chemotherapy based on a patient’s specific cell profile? Using mass spectrometry, x-ray crystallography and a computational approach, Professor Imogen Coe of York’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science is seeking to improve our understanding of how certain therapeutic drugs enter cells—and how this process differs from person to person.

All cells are surrounded by a limpid membrane that contains specialized proteins which control and limit what enters the cell. One such protein — the ‘nucleoside transporter’— serves as a gateway for ‘nucleosides’, which are the biochemical components essential to producing DNA, RNA and energy. However, cancer cells and cells infected with viruses like HIV, divide uncontrollably, and therefore produce a lot of DNA. By chemically altering a nucleoside, scientists can create nucleoside analogues or ‘twins’ which can slip through the transporter and interfere with DNA synthesis preventing cancer and infected cells from continuing to divide. But despite the fact that this clinical approach has been used for years in treatments for leukemia, lymphoma, hepatitis and HIV, virtually nothing is known about the structure of nucleoside transporters.

Coe is working to solve this problem. With a team of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and using a computational approach, Coe has not only discovered that different people possess different quantities of the transporter, she has also pinpointed a fourth human gene that belongs to the family of transporters.

Ultimately, Coe’s groundbreaking research will not only help improve the effectiveness of existing drugs, but also enable doctors to design individualized drug therapies — therapies suited to the needs of specific patients.

Spanning the fields of computer science, mass spectrometry, chemistry and biology, Coe’s work is interdisciplinary and involves collaborators such as Professor Michael Siu of York University and Professor James Coulton of McGill University.

Jason Guriel,York’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada SPARK student (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge), wrote the above article for YFile. Guriel, a second-year graduate student in English, will be writing stories on York NSERC-funded researchers throughout the year.

SPARK is a program that was launched in 1999 at 10 universities across Canada. Through SPARK, students with an aptitude for communications are recruited, trained and paid to write stories based on the NSERC-supported research at participating universities. Information on the NSERC Spark Student program is available at http://www.nserc.ca/science/spark/index.htm.