UIC Chemist Wins Cancer Research Grant

Sep 18, 2002
UIC Chemist Wins Cancer Research Grant

Editor's note: Photo of Gabriel Fenteany available on request

A University of Illinois at Chicago biochemist has been awarded $650,000 to continue research aimed at discovering small organic molecules that inhibit biological processes such as cell movement and, it is hoped, the spread of cancer.

Gabriel Fenteany, assistant professor of chemistry, will receive the funds over three years through a Research Scholar Grant from the American Cancer Society. He was notified of his award in late August.

Fenteany and his laboratory colleagues at UIC have focused their research on finding small molecules that affect animal cell motility — the ability of cells to change shape and move — and that are involved in cancer-related processes, such as angiogenesis and tumor cell invasion and metastasis. The research entails identifying new biologically active chemical compounds, modifying their structures, identification of cellular proteins to which these molecules bind, and understanding how that interaction inhibits cell motility.

"We're hoping these molecules will turn out to be important in controlling cancer progression by inhibiting proteins involved in cell movement," said Fenteany. "This research could lead to better therapeutics."

Fenteany's lab has developed a rapid analysis system, or high-throughput assay, that can test a broad range of molecules for the ability to inhibit cell movement. Molecules that display inhibitory characteristics can be studied further, the proteins to which they bind can be isolated, and their mode of action can be determined.

These small molecules may become useful drug leads and the proteins they bind and inhibit may be new therapeutic drug targets. Fenteany hopes this research will lead to a new class of drugs to combat cancer progression.

Since the biological pathways that are triggered inappropriately in cancer are often those that play normal roles earlier in life, among the compounds Fenteany is studying are some that can cause developmental defects. Thalidomide is perhaps the most notorious example of a compound that can cause birth defects, yet is a promising anti-cancer drug for adults. Setting up an assay using frog embryos, the Fenteany lab screens for molecules that inhibit the cellular processes that are vital to fetal development.

"The signaling proteins you need for embryonic development you want either turned off or regulated during adulthood," he said. "In cancer, certain cells suffer mutations that activate these proteins and pathways. Compounds that inhibit these developmental signaling pathways have great potential as drugs for treatment of cancer."

A native of Santa Barbara, Calif., Fenteany now resides in Oak Park, Ill. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Prior to joining the UIC faculty in 2000, Fenteany did postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School and was a Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals. In addition to his faculty appointment in chemistry, he is a member of the UIC Cancer Center.

Since 1952, the American Cancer Society Illinois Division Research Program has provided early-career scientists with seed money to undertake cancer research. More than 80 percent of these grantees subsequently receive national-level funding to build on findings begun with division grants.

American Cancer Society contact: Amy Ferguson; (312) 279-7362; 

For more information about UIC, visit 


Paul Francuch, 312-996-3457,

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