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UT researchers find compound that could be major breast cancer breakthrough

"This is my playground, this is where we have fun. We are constantly looking for what our molecules can do," Ahn told WFAA at a lab at UT Dallas.

DALLAS — If you ask Dr. Jung-Mo Ahn what he does, he'll tell you he plays Legos but with molecules. 

"This is my playground, this is where we have fun. We are constantly looking for what our molecules can do," Ahn, a research associate professor at University of Texas at Dallas, told WFAA at the lab in the Biomedical Engineering and Sciences building.  

He and his colleagues and collaborators, Dr. Ganesh Raj, professor of urology and pharmacology at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Dr. Ratna Vadlamudi, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UT Health San Antonio, are breaking new ground in cancer research. 

The molecule they've synthesized over the last 10 years called ERX-41 could be a game-changer in treating triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). Triple-negative breast cancer is widely known as the least common but hardest to treat cancers. The compound they've developed binds to an enzyme found in cancer cells. 

Ahn said the compound is also proven effective in ovarian and brain cancers. 

“For a tumor cell to grow quickly, it has to produce a lot of proteins, and this creates stress on the endoplasmic reticulum,” said Ahn. 

“Cancer cells significantly overproduce LIPA, much more so than healthy cells. By binding to LIPA, ERX-41 jams the protein processing in the endoplasmic reticulum, which becomes bloated, leading to cell death,” he told UT Dallas for a campus publication.

Ahn's parents both had cancer. His father died two years ago from lymphoma. His mother survived a stomach cancer and is currently cancer-free. He said he thinks about his parents and friends who have struggled and died from the disease. He said it fuels him and his colleagues to seek solutions.  

"As a scientist, we can easily get trapped by our thoughts, we have to see the big picture sometimes. Hopefully, we're making an impact on society," he said.

And that big picture is being realized. They're waiting on patents to be approved for the ERX-41 compound. The hope is to have clinical trials by next year. 

Ahn told WFAA it is still very early in the process and navigating the regulatory processes can be a long and tedious hurdle. The team of researchers and clinicians have other compounds they have founded that are designed to treat other cancers but ERX-41 is their first foray into the medical drug world.

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