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The Chemistry of Cancer

Binghamton scientists search for a better kind of chemotherapy.


“Cancer chemotherapy is like the barbers in the middle ages,” says chemistry professor Susan Bane. “It can be very crude.”

Chemotherapy kills everything. Cancer cells, healthy cells, tumor cells, hair cells. The body is literally poisoned with the hope that the most active cells — chief among them cancer cells — will die first, allowing the rest of the body to recover.

The incredible thing is, although doctors have been prescribing chemotherapy drugs for years, science is still on the fence about how exactly they work.

The chemo drug Taxol, for example, is made from a chemical derived from the needles of the yew tree. Taxol attacks a central structure within cells called microtubules.

“Anything a cell does that involves movement involves microtubules,” explains Bane, who’s been researching these mysterious microscopic structures at Binghamton since 1985. “Microtubules are dynamic, always getting bigger and smaller. If you disrupt that pattern, you can send them into programmed cell death.”

But how exactly Taxol latches on to the proteins on the surface of the microtubules is still up for debate.

“We don’t know why, we know what,” says Bane, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to study Taxol’s interactions with microtubules. “We know the net result.”

Bane’s current research in this area is part of a consortium of laboratories from Binghamton, Virginia Tech and Emory University. The group focuses on trying to understand the precise interactions between Taxol and its biological target -- the microtubules. This knowledge is being used by the group to design and synthesize new drugs that will act like Taxol.

“The tree didn’t make this to do what it does,” Bane explains. “Although Taxol has been very successful in the clinic, there are major problems with the drug, such as its complicated structure, low solubility and its propensity to cause new tumors to be resistant to further drug treatment. A totally synthetic drug can be designed to avoid these problems.”

Bane’s lab at Binghamton is staffed by four or five graduate students and three or four undergraduates. The undergraduates aren’t standing around cleaning beakers.

“Undergrads do pretty much anything,” says Bane. “Today, one of my undergrads is doing organic chemistry, making some molecules.”

Bane also teaches bioorganic chemistry, one of the most popular upper-level chemistry classes in the department.

“Everything that goes on in your body is organic chemistry,” says Bane. “But most of [the students] like it because the last third of the course is all drugs.”  Oh, college kids.

Find out more about Professor Bane’s lab and the exciting work going on in the Chemistry Department.

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Last Updated: 6/17/09