This past summer, senior biochemistry major Luke Miller researched an anti-inflammatory drug that could possibly be used to treat pancreatic cancer — an effort he was inspired to join because of his little brother’s struggle with cancer.
“This is actually like boots-on-the-ground research that is hopefully going to make a difference,” Miller said. “Cancer is so diverse and so complex that really any strides we can make in either understanding the mechanism or finding a compound that really helps is incredibly important.”
Miller worked under the supervision of Karen Liby ’94, who is now an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University.
Liby said her lab focuses on studying drugs for the treatment and prevention of cancer, specifically those related to inflammation.
Although pancreatic cancer is a relatively simple type of cancer, it’s also one of the deadliest types, Miller said.
Depending on what stage at which the cancer is diagnosed, survival rates can range from 7 ‑10 percent, according to the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. The survival rates are lowest, if the cancer has metastasized, or spread to different parts of the body.
According to the American Cancer Society, tens of thousands of adults in the United States are diagnosed with and die from pancreatic cancer every year.
Pancreatic cancer can often become drug-resistant and be difficult to diagnose because of its similarities to pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
Having pancreatitis causes a twelvefold increase in a patient’s risk of getting pancreatic cancer, Miller said, so inflammation plays a significant role in pancreatic cancer development.
“We’re trying to see if we can find a way to treat pancreatitis in a manner that prevents pancreatic cancer development or at least lessens the severity of the cancer when it develops,” Miller said.
Miller worked with a specific anti-inflammatory drug to see if it would be effective in treating pancreatitis and, by extension, pancreatic cancer.
This drug was previously tested to see if it would have any effect on Parkinson’s disease, but Miller said it didn’t work for that purpose.
“It’s an example of a drug-repurposing project,” Liby said of Miller’s research.
To test whether the drug would stop the body’s inflammatory response and cancer cell production, Miller used a live mouse model to see how mice responded to induced pancreatic cancer and inflammation and how the drug of interest could help alleviate the symptoms.
Miller said the inflammatory focus makes the drug different from traditional chemotherapies, which target rapidly dividing cells.
Miller had previously worked in a plant physiology lab for two summers but decided to apply for the cancer research opportunity for this past summer because of his little brother’s leukemia diagnosis.
“I really wanted to have an opportunity to work in a cancer laboratory and contribute, because it’s since then become a huge part of my life and the life of my family,” Miller said. “The thing about cancer is that as a family member, you feel so helpless when someone you know or someone you’re related to has cancer. You feel so helpless because you can’t do anything. So just finding a way to do something was really great.”
While he was not working on curing leukemia specifically, Miller said he still wanted to make a difference through working on other types of cancer — an opportunity made possible through the laboratory’s work ethic.
“They’re really dedicated to what they do and to helping people, trying to focus on getting new drugs, better drugs, on the market,” Miller said. “And they want to do it for the right reasons. It’s not really for the recognition. It really is to help people and make lives better. You can see that when they talk about their work.”
Liby’s lab has worked with several other drugs that have potential for preventing and treating cancer, including a class of drugs called rexinoids.
Miller said working in a pharmacology setting has influenced his goals for after graduation. He said he is definitely considering doing something related to cancer biology and probably something even more fundamentally related to cell biology.
“Luke did a great job,” Liby said. “He’s exactly the type to do well in graduate school.”
The official results of Miller’s research from the summer won’t be published for a while yet, Liby said.
Nevertheless, Miller said he hopes research on this drug can continue. He said he was heartened by the work he saw being done in Liby’s lab.
“There are people out there who really do have a deep-seated desire to help, to heal people suffering from this disease,” Miller said. “And at least I hope that can be a comforting thought.”