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Targeted Cancer Therapy and Imaging

Hyun-Soon Chong, Professor of Chemistry

Much attention on cancer therapy today focuses on using an individual’s immune system to combat the disease, with an outcome that can be safer and more precise than that achieved by traditional chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Hyun-Soon Chong, a professor of chemistry at Illinois Tech, is developing antibody drug conjugates (ADCs) for targeted cancer therapy. Targeted immunotherapy allows oncologists to design a new class of hunter-killer cells that can seek out and destroy cancer while leaving normal cells alone.

Antibodies are proteins that the immune system produces to identify and kill harmful pathogens by recognizing the unique molecular signature of that pathogen, called an antigen. A monoclonal antibody has been cloned from a parent cell and is expected to target and bind to the specific antigen expressed on cancer cells, thereby leading to death of the cancers.

“The idea is to use a specific-tumor seeking antibody to load cytotoxic drugs or radiation to the targeted tumor site” she says. “This selective targeting allows a therapeutic small molecule drug or radiation to be safely delivered to cancer cells, while minimizing damage to normal healthy cells.”

Chong’s interdisciplinary research laboratory is focused on development of anti-cancer small molecule drugs and precision medicine based on the utilization of radiation and antibody combinations. The preclinical studies start by designing and producing small molecule drug candidates and screening them against human cancer cell lines in her lab. Then, promising drugs can be conjugated to a tumor-specific antibody for generation of ADCs for detailed biological evaluations. In collaboration with other researchers in medical schools, the best antibody-drug conjugates will be investigated for their effectiveness in removing tumors in animal models.

She says that this therapeutic approach has improved the efficacy and safety of traditional therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy and has been utilized for development of personalized cancer drugs, particularly in the area of ADC pharmaceuticals and radioimmunotherapy (RIT), in which the conjugated antibody is attached to a radioactive isotope designed to kill cancer cells.

Chong is also investigating the application of chelation chemistry to generate antibody conjugates for detecting cancers using positron emission topography (PET) imaging technology. In this technique, a radioactive imaging probe bound to an optimal chelate as a metal sequestering agent is attached to an antibody. The radiolabeled antibody conjugate targeting a specific tumor site is injected into the live animals. The radiolabeled antibody conjugates are localized to cancerous cells present in the patient that can be detected and imaged by the PET scan. The highly sensitive PET can detect cancers that other imaging techniques might miss and is also used to monitor the effectiveness of ongoing cancer treatments.

Looking ahead to the next generation of science researchers and the needs of society today, Chong led the formation of five new undergraduate chemistry programs launched by the Department of Chemistry at Illinois Tech: Bioanalytical Chemistry, Computational Chemistry and Biochemistry, Environmental Chemistry, Forensic Chemistry, and Medicinal Chemistry. The new chemistry programs will be open to first-year students this fall and to transfer students in 2019.