Seven decades ago, Southern Research began an investigation into the mechanisms of cancer that produced bold new ideas about how to combat the disease and novel drugs to treat it.
Today, the Birmingham-based non-profit organization’s fight against cancer is still going strong.
Working with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in a partnership called the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, new anticancer drugs are under development. In addition, Southern Research’s laboratories are testing thousands of compounds that could one day result in treatments.
Southern Research scientists, meanwhile, are exploring new oncology approaches in promising therapeutic fields that include immunotherapy and gene therapy.
And the cancer program at Southern Research continues to provide government and commercial clients with tumor models and other resources for scientific evaluation that could spur the discovery of new products.
“At Southern Research, we have developed seven anticancer drugs and made critical advances in basic research that have deepened our understanding of cancer,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO. “We will continue to use our deep science and development tools to work toward novel treatments for a disease that kills a half million Americans each year.”
As Southern Research enters its 75th year, its cancer program is building on a rich history that dates back to 1946, when Mobile businessman and philanthropist Ben May gave the organization a $25,000 donation to launch the program.
Howard Skipper, Ph.D., used May’s gift to assemble a world-class team of scientists that included Frank Schabel, John Montgomery and Lee Bennett Jr. Their work established Southern Research as an important center of investigation and discovery in the fight against cancer.
In those days, few people believed drugs were useful in combating cancer, but Skipper’s team developed principles that provided the foundation for effective chemotherapy. Much of the focus was on leukemia, and the work saved the lives of countless children.
Skipper’s group devised animal models to study the effects of chemotherapy and used these models to develop protocols for administering and combining drugs to kill malignant cells faster than they could grow back.
He is known for his theory that a specific dose of a drug kills the same proportion – not the same number – of cancer cells. This “total cell kill” concept provided valuable treatment guidance to oncologists.
Skipper’s work earned him the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1974, the Charles F. Kettering Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation in 1982, the American Cancer Society Annual National Award, also in 1982, among many others.
“Southern Research is one of the best places to do cancer research,” said Bo Xu, M.D., Ph.D., senior research fellow and chair of the Oncology Department. “We’re fortunate to have had pioneering scientists, especially Skipper, who was instrumental in cancer chemotherapy. People didn’t believe that cancer could be cured by a drug, but he was the one who proved that.”
Led by Montgomery and later by Jack Secrist, Ph.D., the Southern Research team also made significant contributions in anticancer drug discovery and development.
Southern Research has so far discovered six FDA-approved anticancer drugs, a record number for a non-profit organization, as well as a cytoprotectant drug that blocks the harmful effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
These anticancer drugs are pralatrexate (brand name: Folotyn), clofarabine (Clolar), fludarabine (Fludura), dacarbazine (DTIC), lomustine (Cee-Nu) and carmustine (BiCNU), while the cytoprotectant is amifostine (Ethyol).
Physicians use these drugs in the treatment of leukemia, melanoma, brain tumors, lymphoma and other forms of cancer.
In addition, Southern Research scientists have designed and synthesized many compounds that have been evaluated in a clinical setting but have not advanced to FDA approval, a process that can take a decade or more.
The organization’s labs have long been active in the effort to discover new anticancer medicines. Most of the drugs approved by the FDA for the treatment of cancer were evaluated in these labs at some point in their development.
STEPPING UP THE FIGHT
Southern Research is a longtime ally of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), an operational division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NCI turned to Skipper’s team to evaluate anticancer drugs in the early phases of a relationship that remains strong to this day.
Over the past two decades, the NIH has provided Southern Research with $90 million in funding for cancer research.
Today, Southern Research scientists are focusing on research fields including tumor cell biology, the development of molecular-targeted therapeutics, and the mechanism of action of chemotherapy drugs.
The organization continues to add expertise in the fight against cancer. For example, Janet Houghton, Ph.D., a cancer researcher with 30 years of experience and strong NCI ties, joined Southern Research late last year as a senior research fellow and endowed chair in cancer biology.
“For many decades, Southern Research has been recognized as a leading institute for oncology drug discovery, and by adding a world-class scientist like Dr. Houghton, we will continue these successes,” Xu said.