Gunning for a Cure: Young research group builds molecules to fight cancer

It’s easy to forget that the Gunning Group is at the helm of some of the most cutting edge research in cancer prevention.

The young, diverse, high-energy team is a far cry from pop culture depictions of old men in lab coats, but the science they’re doing couldn’t be more real.

“I have a very young and dynamic research group,” says Patrick Gunning, the group’s founder and head. “We’re fifty-fifty boys and girls who are extremely motivated and driven individuals.”

The Gunning Group is spearheading a new kind of cancer treatment focused around targeting proteins on a molecular level. So far, they’ve had success targeting a myriad of cancers including brain, breast and multiple myeloma.

“Our research goal is to develop novel molecule inhibitors of target proteins that are involved in the cancerous cells’ growth and survival,” says Gunning. Some of the research is currently in pre-clinical trials on animals.


The cancer cell basically commits suicide without this protein.

Gunning’s research targets two proteins in particular – STAT3 and STAT5. The group’s molecules latch onto these and inhibit the protein’s functions. Cancer relies on these proteins, so by preventing their function, the proteins are taking away the cancer’s lifeline.

As Gunning puts it, “the cancer cell basically commits suicide without this protein.” His group decided to target his research Stat3 and Stat5 because nobody had successfully done so yet. “It was a very prominent, high profile target without a drug,” explains Gunning “so for us it seemed like a very good avenue of research.”

Building a Molecule

Once they decided on a target, the next step is creating molecules that will bind to specific proteins. If a molecule can’t bind to a protein, it can’t do its job as an inhibitor. To get the molecule to do this, Gunning says that they base their molecules off “native binding motifs that are found within the cell.”


Researcher prepping calculations before testing molecule reactions. [Photo © Beth White]

The process of designing molecules isn’t easy.

Gunning says they begin by modeling the molecules on paper. Once that’s done, they use computer simulations to predict how the molecule will interact with the protein. After that, it comes to creating the molecules themselves. Once a molecule is created, it still needs to be tested to make sure that it will actuallybind to the protein and target the correct protein. When this is confirmed, they put the molecules into cancerous cells and watch for the effects.

“Basically we’re looking for a molecule that is very selective,” says Gunning.

When they’ve picked the molecule designs that are most effective, they move on to animal testing. Accuracy and effectiveness aren’t the only measures of success for one of the group’s molecules. The molecule also needs to be able to work as a drug. One of the roadblocks here is bioavailability, which is the rate that a substance is absorbed into a living system.

“Molecules that are extremely on target that don’t have bioavailability are some of our biggest disappointments,” says Gunning.


Gunning’s next goal is getting his research into clinical trials. [Photo © Beth White]

The Next Steps

While Gunning’s methods have cured cancer in some lab mice, that doesn’t guarantee success if the trials move on to human tests.

“The biggest issue is always metabolism, basically what the body does to the drug and whether the human body is to neutralize the drug so it doesn’t work,” says Gunning.

But Gunning isn’t looking that far ahead just yet. “It’s very much milestone driven,” he says “you get to one milestone then you move on to the next. The hope is that it will keep on passing and go into clinical development.”

Gunning says the enthusiasm of his group helps the drive to the next milestone.

“It’s actually a real pleasure to work with them. My interactions with them are the best part of my day. Being able to chat with them and see their enthusiasm and motivation is really quite inspiring.”

As for his own outlook, Gunning is passionate, but cautiously optimistic.

“I think I have a great job, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. To be able to make molecules that kill cancer is just such a rewarding field of research, but ultimately it’s only going to be rewarding if we can get a molecule into clinic.”

It takes $1.4 million per year to run the Gunning Group’s labs. Here’s a look at the National Cancer Institute’s distribution of funding for specific cancers. You can also look at the total amount of deaths for men and women from specific cancers.


Comments are closed.