Philip S. Low (BS ’71) has discovered a Trojan horse—not the mythical wooden horse used by the Greeks to conquer Troy, but a delivery vehicle to target cancer. Working with one of his graduate students at Purdue University, Low found that molecules could be linked to vitamins, and vitamins could transport cargo into a cell.
“We learned cancer cells have an insatiable appetite for the vitamin folic acid—they even have special folic acid receptors for it, which are virtually absent in normal cells,” Low says. “We take advantage of the cells’ greed for the vitamin.”
A cancer drug is attached to the folic acid vitamin, and through a process called endocytosis, in which a cell brings materials in from the outside, the vitamin passes through the cell wall. “The ability to get large molecules across the cell membrane has defied the scientific community for years,” Low says. Once across the membrane, the undetected drug is released and goes to work killing the cancer.
“The major benefit of this treatment strategy is that it allows one to target the toxic drug directly to cancer cells, thereby avoiding the usual collateral toxicity to healthy cells,” says Low. Because of this reduced toxicity, the cancer drug can be administered over a longer period of time, thus increasing the chance of tumor regression.
Patents and technologies from Low’s lab led him to form the company Endocyte, for which he currently serves as chief science officer.