UC Clermont professor receives $100,000 grant for cancer research

Award fuels college’s ongoing search for novel cancer treatment

A UC Clermont professor has received a $100,000 PhRMA Foundation Faculty Starter Grant in drug discovery for her work on new antibiotics capable of taking on cancer stem cells.

Jill Shirokawa, assistant professor of chemistry, is spearheading the groundbreaking research at the college, which brings together two projects previously started by her UC Clermont colleagues. Their work is aimed toward a lofty goal.

“Our long-term goal is to find new anti-cancer drugs,” Shirokawa said.

Professor Emeritus Cliff Larrabee first began cancer research at UC Clermont in 2009. In 2019, Larrabee and his co-inventor, former student Mary Warmin, submitted a patent for a new nanocarrier targeted drug delivery system based on undecylenic acid — i.e., a more effective method of delivering chemotherapy drugs to cancer patients. Nanocarriers are even smaller than cells and help drugs dissolve in the blood and protect them from the body’s defense mechanisms. Larrabee, who is a consultant on Shirokawa’s project, also believed the new technology could potentially deliver antibiotics directly to cancer tumors.

 Krista Clark, professor of biology, Jill Shirokawa, assistant professor of chemistry, and Clifford Larrabee, professor emeritus, in their research space at UC Clermont.

From left, Krista Clark, professor of biology, Jill Shirokawa, assistant professor of chemistry, and Clifford Larrabee, professor emeritus, in their research space at UC Clermont. Photo/Danny Kidd

“You can kill cancer stem cells with antibiotics,” Larrabee said. “And if you can kill them before they differentiate, maybe you can prevent or slow metastasis.”

While traditional antibiotics have shown promise in the cancer-fighting arena, researchers hope to discover new drugs that hold even more potent power — and less antibiotic resistance. To that end, in 2017, UC Clermont became the first institution in Ohio to join the Small World Initiative, an international project that uses undergraduate research to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance head-on. Professor Krista Clark, a cell biologist by training, leads her students through isolating bacteria from soil samples taken in their local environments. The bacteria strains then are screened for their ability to produce antibiotics that are effective against the most common antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Our long-term goal is to find new anti-cancer drugs.

Jill Shirokawa Assistant Professor of Chemistry, UC Clermont

Clark, Larrabee and Shirokawa in their research space at UC Clermont.

Clark, Larrabee and Shirokawa in their research space at UC Clermont. Photo/Danny Kidd

After Clark’s students grow the bacteria in the lab and extract a crude antibiotic from it, Shirokawa’s team places the antibiotic into the nanoparticle designed by Larrabee to protect the drug from getting destroyed when injected into the body. To date, the researchers have identified 19 bacteria that produce antibiotic-isolating compounds and show initial signs that they can kill cancer cells, Shirokawa said.

“Our goal is to identify from those extracts the compound that actually kills the cancer stem cells,” Shirokawa said. “We would love to eventually get this treatment into the clinical setting, where it could actually be delivered to cancer patients.”

Shirokawa, who took the reins of the project in 2020, plans to use the PhRMA grant to purchase supplies and small equipment for the college’s budding anti-cancer drug discovery lab. In the future, she hopes to apply for additional funds to increase the number of students involved in the research. Currently, two full-time lab assistants work alongside one or two UC Clermont students each semester. She is asking potential science faculty about their research interests during the hiring process, too.

“We hope to continue to build research opportunities at UC Clermont,” Shirokawa said. “Every faculty member or student involved brings a different perspective to the work.”

UC Clermont Dean Jeff Bauer said the research happening at the college through Shirokawa’s work is exciting and supported in part by donors through the Sophia Fund for Innovation.

“We are delighted to support the research by Drs. Clark, Larrabee and Shirokawa that is focused on improving the efficacy of cancer drug delivery,” Bauer said. “UC Clermont is uniquely positioned to provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to participate in this ground-breaking work that will improve lives in our community — and beyond.”

Featured photo: Jill Shirokawa, assistant professor of chemistry, working in the anti-cancer drug discovery lab at UC Clermont. Photo/Danny Kidd

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