For nearly 30 years, Dr. Chris Kemp has explored the genetic and biologic basis of cancer. But only recently did he decide to concentrate his research on a single goal: to work toward developing more effective, less toxic cancer therapies.
It is a realistic objective, Kemp said, thanks to new breakthroughs in scientific research. “Only recently have we been given the tools to systematically and comprehensively identify potential new targets to treat cancer cells,” he said.
But there is something else: Kemp is motivated. As a child, he lost his mother to colon cancer. Then, as an adult, he lost his stepmother to kidney cancer. The latest loss primed Kemp to embrace a more goal-oriented research strategy.
One of the key advances to enable this new avenue of research is an approach known as functional genetics and high throughput screening, which involves systematically testing large numbers of genes to identify weak points in the cancer cells. “It’s essentially a very efficient search engine that quickly and precisely identifies genes required for survival of cancer cells,” Kemp said.
The underlying theory is that all cancers are characterized by uncontrolled cell proliferation, a trait that also creates vulnerabilities that could be exploited. Kemp is using functional genetics to find those weak points and then attack them using existing or new drugs that will selectively kill cancer cells but not normal cells.
“This screening method gives us a much broader menu of targets and a greater chance of success to develop more effective, less toxic therapies,” he said. “We have eliminated several major bottlenecks in the traditional path to cancer drug development and have optimized a pipeline to finding better therapies.”
As a member of the Hutchinson Center’s divisions of Human Biology and Public Health Sciences, Kemp is in an enviable position to share his work and collaborate with like-minded colleagues. “By teaming up with experts with a range of experience, we will be able to translate our findings to the clinic much faster,” he said. Before screening cancer genes for new therapies, Kemp worked with Center investigators to study blood-based biomarkers for early detection of cancer. That work has produced promising and ongoing leads for identifying proteins in blood that may signify early stages of lung and breast cancers. If cancer is detected earlier, treatment is likely to be more effective.
Kemp’s work in new treatments and early detection has him convinced that science is close to making big progress against cancer. “I’m more optimistic than ever before,” he said.