"I just didn't understand how this can happen. How am I not going to see Grandpa anymore?" Lopez recalls.
Igor Alabugin, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., is investigating a new weapon against cancer. It's a two part process that triggers damaged cells to self-destruct
"And if you can apply that to cancer cells, that would be a way to kill cancer," Dr. Alabugin says.
The DNA in our cells has two strands. Break one, and it can repair itself. Break both, and it can't survive. The problem -- drugs that can kill cancer cells often attack the healthy cells too.
"What we wanted to do is we wanted to design molecules that only work at the right place at the right time," Dr. Alabugin says.
They discovered a group of molecules called lysine conjugates. Activated by a special kind of light, these molecules target cancer cells. They can identify a damaged spot in one strand of the DNA, then induce breakage in the other. The result -- apoptosis -- the cancer cells die.
"They start to shrink. They kill themselves. They commit suicide," Dr. Alabugin says.
In lab tests on human kidney cancer cells, their cancer-killing success rate was 90 percent. Researchers hope one day, this lysine-light combination could be used to treat tumors and other cancers without surgery. It's no wonder Lopez wanted to be part of this research team. For him, it's personal.
"I hope the research we do can really help other people and make them not go through what I had to go through," Lopez says.
If the preclinical studies are successful in animals, human testing of this cancer killing technique could begin in the next few years.
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Dr. Igor Alabugin