Samy Meroueh, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, will receive $720,000 over a four-year period. The prestigious grant funding is reserved for junior faculty members with promising cancer research.
Dr. Meroueh’s research focuses on uPAR, a cell surface receptor that has been the focus of his research for several years. The receptor exists only in cancer cells that metastasize, making it an excellent target for the development of therapeutics to block metastasis, which is the main reason that more than 90 percent of patients succumb to cancer, he said.
With earlier funding from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Meroueh’s lab has identified small molecules that attach to uPAR on the surface of cancer cells in metastatic tumors.
“This proposal focuses on two lead compounds and we will employ computational design and chemical synthesis to improve their efficacy,” he said. “Currently, we are studying the effects of our molecules on breast cancer metastasis in mice. One compound is already showing promise in blocking metastasis to the lungs.”
He hopes to link these molecules with existing chemotherapeutic agents that will attach to the uPAR protein and selectively kill cancer cells, while sparing healthy cells.
A second phase of the study will link the uPAR-targeted molecules with probes for high-resolution imaging of metastases that are not detected by conventional PET scans. That would provide physicians tools to better assess the degree of metastasis early and adjust treatment to prevent recurrence.