Moravian College Chemistry Professors and Students Publish Research on Potential New Cancer Drugs

Two Moravian College faculty member s and three of their former student advisees have collaborated on research that could lead to effective new DNA-binding drugs for difficult to treat cancers. The researchers have identified a new metal compound with DNA-binding properties, similar to those of the potent antitumor platinum compounds now used to treat testicular cancer. The Moravian researchers’ work was published in the March 23, 2011 issue of Inorganic Chemistry, a leading journal in the field, published by the American Chemical Society.

Moravian chemistry professors Shari U. Dunham and Stephen U. Dunham have been studying the DNA interactions of antitumor-active rhodium compounds since 2001. Since their arrival at Moravian in the fall of 2005, the Dunhams have worked with twelve students who have developed various aspects of the rhodium-DNA research. Todd S. Remaley ’08, a medical student at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Bryn Lipovsky Moore ’06, now at the Weis Center for Research, and Debra Evans ’09, a Ph.D. candidate studying at the Mayo Clinic, were co-authors with the Dunhams of the paper “Isolation, Characterization, and DNA Binding Kinetics of Three Dirhodium (II,II) Carboxyamidate Complexes.”

“We’re very excited not only because we’ve been working on this for several years, but also because the paper has three student co-authors,” said Professor Shari Dunham. “Very few undergraduate institutions publish in this prestigious journal, and very rarely does a paper in this journal have undergraduate student authors. Many of our colleagues at larger institutions are amazed that we can do quality research like this with undergraduate student researchers.”

Both trained as bio-inorganic chemists (scientists who study the interaction of metals in biological systems), the Dunhams previously studied Cisplatin, a potent antitumor drug effective due to its interactions with DNA. (The drug was used to treat the testicular cancer of cyclist Lance Armstrong.) Prior to their arrival at Moravian, the Dunhams showed that the metal rhodium forms complexes with DNA-binding capabilities and could be a mechanism for killing cancer cells. Their latest research significantly advances the previous work by identifying a new—previously undiscovered—rhodium compound with DNA binding abilities.

“We are trying to characterize how fast this compound and similar ones bind to DNA and, more importantly, how and where on the DNA they bind,” said Shari Dunham. “We would like to be able to predict and make small changes in the rhodium compounds that allow them to bind faster or slower, or to bind at different sites on the DNA so that we can potentially target drugs for specific cancers. We are developing a body of knowledge that may help us design more effective drug agents.”

This summer, the Dunhams will work with four new students (through Moravian’s Student Opportunities for Academic Research program) to add to that body of knowledge.