A Targeted Approach to Fighting Cancer

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Heather Hennkens

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Heather Hennkens says the goal is to create a more efficient, fully functional pipeline for radiopharmaceutical development from campus laboratories all the way to the human bedside.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

In the near future, a prostate cancer patient in Missouri may be injected with a radioisotope that can help imaging scanners accurately determine the precise location of a tumor. That diagnostic imagery could also help determine the targeting ability and exact therapeutic dose necessary to destroy the cancer cells without harming other tissues or organs in the body. A physician could then deliver to that patient a therapeutic radioisotope that is toxic to the cancer cells, without all of the physical side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy. This is the essence of precision medicine, and it’s at the heart of the University of Missouri system’s NextGen Precision Health Initiative.

In August, system President Mun Choi announced 20 innovative research projects that will receive more than $20 million in funding from the UM System and its four universities. One of the projects was proposed by Professor Tim Glass, chair of the MU Department of Chemistry, to fund radiopharmaceutical research across campus.

“This is truly interdisciplinary work and will cover the range of science involved in developing a radiopharmaceutical agent,” Glass says. “This proposal will fund collaborations between the different units that will lead to more collaborative grants and allow us to develop new imaging and therapy agents for cancer.”

“Precision medicine is the future of health care,” says Patricia Okker, dean of the College of Arts and Science. “The goal is to get improved therapies to more people, more quickly — a goal which is of the utmost importance to everyone involved in the NextGen Initiative. Thank you to the A&S faculty’s key role in conducting such crucial research and to the UM System for funding it.”

We’re Not Waiting

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Heather Hennkens is managing one of the project’s collaborations and looks forward to being able to conduct this research at the Institute of Nano and Molecular Innovations (INMI) on the MU campus. That facility will soon provide the critical infrastructure and collaborative expertise to researchers at all four campuses who have ideas that can attract national funding but may lack the personal expertise or laboratory facilities to fully develop a radiopharmaceutical product.


Heather Hennkens, Daniel Ampong-O'Connor, Mary Embree, Georgios Makris

Assistant Prof. of Chemistry Heather Hennkens, MURR staff members Daniel Ampong-O'Connor and Mary Embree, and Georgios Makris, a former postdoctoral student in Hennkens' group.

“We’re not waiting…we’re going to continue to do our research to keep our progress going,” she says. “The reason we are doing this is to bring folks together from the various colleges and departments so we can do more collectively—bring bright minds together to move things forward faster and more efficiently with fewer resources to get greater outcomes.”

Making an Impact on Human Health

The collective team is trying to develop radiopharmaceutical agents that can target lung and prostate disease, from both a diagnostic and a therapeutic standpoint.

“Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common form of primary lung neoplasia,” Hennkens says. “Folks who come in with this type—nearly 40 percent present with metastasis, and their survival rate is quite low, so there is certainly a need to do something for these patients. As for prostate cancer, it continues to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer and second-leading cause of cancer death in men in the U.S.”

Right now those patients are typically treated with chemotherapy, a shotgun approach that floods the body with chemicals to try to knock out the cancer. Targeted radiotherapy is more like using a rifle to treat cancer instead of a shotgun.

“It allows you to be more precise in the treatment of a patient,” Hennkens says. “Also, the diagnostic agent could rule in or out a patient, so you can spare a patient the time, effort, and cost of a particular therapy when it’s not likely to be beneficial. That’s the intent—to find out if it will work and how it will best work.”

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