UNC0638, a molecular probe created by UNC chemist Jian Jin, in an artist’s rendering. The probe will help researchers find out what role proteins G9a and GLP play in conditions such as cocaine addiction, mental retardation, HIV latency and various kinds of cancer. (Courtesy of Jian Jin.)
The Force is strong with this one
In The Empire Strikes Back, a robotic probe lands on the ice planet Hoth, rises from the snow and searches for the Rebellion’s hideout. The long-limbed, metallic probe finds a specific structure and determines that it could be a field generator. Darth Vader orders the attack.
Now, put yourself in Vader’s boots for a moment. He had long considered the Rebellion a cancer, a blight on the face of the galaxy. If he could have, he’d have blown the entire planet of Hoth to smithereens. Alas, the Empire’s Death Star, which had a superlaser capable of such a task, had been destroyed in the previous Star Wars movie. So Lord Vader was forced to use a more precise method: he ordered a ground assault.
Okay, stay with me here.
Doctors want to help patients as best they can. Unfortunately, a lot of pharmaceuticals, such as chemotherapies, are too much like the Death Star’s laser beam of annihilation and too little like a narrow assault on specific cancer cells. Some treatments wreak havoc throughout the body. And sometimes the drugs don’t work well enough against cancer cells or tumors.
One reason for this is that a lot of drugs, especially cancer drugs, are inhibitors; they prevent some cells from making certain proteins. When those proteins aren’t expressed, cancer cells can’t divide. Inhibitors, though, don’t work perfectly. Many cancers and other diseases find ways to overcome the suppression. And because inhibitors are not selective, they don’t just squash the proteins they target in cancer cells; they blast those proteins and other proteins in some healthy cells. This causes side effects, some of which are so severe that doctors can’t give patients the most effective drug dosages.
Scientists and doctors know all this, of course. They’d prefer a more precise approach. They’d prefer a probe and then a ground assault.
Medicinal chemist Jian Jin is nothing like Darth Vader, but he has created a probe and sent it out into the galaxy of biomedical researchers. It’s strong, it’s nontoxic, and it’s allowing scientists to order attacks on ailments as varied as liver cancer, HIV, and cocaine addiction.
Jin, a soft-spoken scientist from China, spent ten years in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry discovering drug candidates for various targets before coming to UNC in 2008. When asked why he left Big Pharma, he smiles and pauses. “There are a lot of reasons,” he says. “Mainly I wanted the freedom to pursue the science I’m most interested in.” And that’s molecular probes.