MU researcher awarded prestigious fellowship

Dec 13, 2012

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization that has been around since 1848. The goal of the organization is to advance science, engineering and innovation globally. It publishes the prestigious journal Science and several other scientific publications. Every year AAAS names fellows based on their contributions to science. This year the University of Missouri had six members of its faculty earn the esteemed honor of being named a fellow. ​Dr. Stephen Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at MU and was a recipient of the award. KBIA’s Alexandra Olgin sat down with him, to discuss his award and his research. 

First of all, congratulations on getting this award, and being a fellow. Can you tell me what it means to be a fellow? 

Well I think it’s a very nice distinction, I was honored to be recognized by my colleagues in the biological sciences. I couldn’t be more thrilled to get this award. 

So what does it mean to be a fellow? 

Well I think it’s a distinction that the totality of your life’s work is considered important.

So can we just talk a little bit about your research? 

The primary problem we are interested in is why tumors become resistant to the drugs that we use to try and treat them. Specifically, about 15 years ago, we got interested in Cisplatin, which is a drug widely used to treat a variety of tumors. And in almost all the cases tumors will ultimately become resistant to the drug.

There had been a lot of work done on this drug, but also quite a lot of confusion, and I had the idea that we could use genetics to sort some of this out. So we work on a simple organism that we can do genetics on, and we got mutant lines that were resistant to the drug. This allowed us to identify what genes were involved and what proteins were involved. We sorted through this and we found a couple novel enzymes that were involved in making cells resistant, and we followed up on one of these for the next 12 to 14 years.

How did you get started with this research? 

We were studying DNA repair for a completely different reason. Somebody brought it to my attention that there was a drug that causes DNA damage and that it’s a chemotherapeutic drug called Cisplatin. They suggested that I look to see how the cells repair that damage. And when I read the literature on this drug, I realized there was this major problem with therapy. Then I had this idea that we should go for it and try to figure this out. 

So what are the real world implications for someone who has cancer right now?

One of the things we discovered is that we could sensitize cells to this drug using another drug. A tumor that might be resistant to Cisplatin at a certain level is a real problem therapeutically because you can’t raise the concentration of the drug you are using. But by using a secondary drug we made those tumors more sensitive to the first drug. 

Is this currently being used? 

There is no current use, but these things take a lot of time and its very expensive to bring any drug to market and the biochemistry is complicated. 

Do certain people have a resistance to this drug or is it random? 

Every tumor has a number of mutations which make it a tumor. That’s the primary characteristic of a tumor is that it is growing faster than a normal cell. Having said that, these cells also have what is known as genomic instability, so their DNA gets broken up and mutated a bit faster than normal cells. The result of that is more mutations accumulate. It’s a totally random process it could happen early on, it could happen later, or it might never happen. 

Is there anything else that you want to add? 

I just want to say that I am very grateful for getting this award and very happy that it came my way.