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UNM Researcher Finds Some Existing Drugs Kill Cancer Cells

Marisa Demarco / KUNM
Dr. Alex Chigaev in UNM's Cancer Research Facility

It’s expensive and it takes years to get a new drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. So researchers at the University of New Mexico are going back through the medicine cabinet of drugs developed for things other than cancer and testing them on cancer cells. 

They found a couple of drugs that attack some types of leukemia—acute myelogenous leukemia and B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia—that don’t yet have great treatment options.

Dr. Alex Chigaev showed KUNM's Marisa Demarco around the university's Cancer Research Facility. The HyperCyt machine looks like something out of an episode of “CSI.” It dips a probe one by one into rows of tiny cups and can test thousands of chemical compounds on cancer cells in a single afternoon.


CHIGAEV: These are the robots that can actually analyze all kinds of things. It was developed here.

KUNM: So this is where you tested all the different drugs.

CHIGAEV: Yes. So that’s one of the earliest machines, you see, just a simple manipulator and it actually takes cells from this plate and delivers it into the machine and that’s the type of data that we’re getting here.

KUNM: Cool.

CHIGAEV: I am studying cancer and studying how cells live and die. And we’re trying to understand what makes cancer cells different from any other cells of our bodies. Yeah, and by doing that, well we’re trying to understand how cells survive and try[ing] to devise novel mechanism[s] to attack cancer cells while leaving our regular cells without really a lot of harm.

KUNM: Cancer cells don’t die off the way that other cells do. Is that right? Can you explain that a little bit?

CHIGAEV: So, we live in the environment, and there’s always environmental damage, right? The easiest example is like, UV rays. If there is too much damage, cells just die. It’s a normal process. Cancer cells emerge in a similar way.  What happens is they are damaged, right? But they damage damage damage, damage is accumulated and cells don’t die, and that’s one of the peculiar things that makes them different. 

KUNM: And so what you’ve tried to identify is how to kill off those damaged cells using existing drugs so that you don’t have to go through the process of trying to get some new drug approved by the FDA.

CHIGAEV: Well if you develop [a] novel chemical entity, it takes years and, you know, billions of dollars to test and develop new drugs. It’s well-known that other drugs can actually work in cancer. And why is that? Well, because cancer cells, it’s our own cells that are actually damaged by these environmental factors.

KUNM: And so what did you find? Did you find a drug or a couple of drugs that do the job? That kill damaged cells?

CHIGAEV: Yes. We tested several drugs and we found some of the anti-malarial drugs and some of the old anti-diarrheal drugs—it’s called “traveler’s diarrhea” in the ’60s—that’s what you take when you go south from here for example. But now it’s not used, but I believe it’s still out there in pharmacies. And it can be taken from there and tested.

Credit Marisa Demarco / KUNM

KUNM: And then you tested them on current patient samples, and they worked.

CHIGAEV: Yes. Yeah. That was really amazing and really interesting that the hypothesis works. It’s always exciting when some idea, some novel ideas …  you question yourself, your students, and everybody questions: Is it real? Is it really … Do you really believe in that? Well, and it turned out to be that our tests are, so far, really encouraging.

KUNM: So what do you think it means? What do you think it means for people that you’ve made this discovery?

CHIGAEV: I believe it means that we have to work even harder and try to develop these drugs and try to design some clinical trials to see whether these drugs can be re-purposed and used in clinical settings.

Nowadays as you know, rarely is cancer treated by a single drug. There’s always a cocktail. And the hope is that these drugs are not going to be used alone, right, as the single therapy, but they can be used as a supplemental therapy for others.

So yes, it’s not like a cure for cancer for all, but to certain cancers—and especially, there are certain ones with a really bad, you know, outcomes—that’s what we’re gearing towards.

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