The Basics: The biochemistry majors have spent the past two years working to modify methotrexate, a drug currently used to treat cancer. The problem with current cancer drugs, explains Pearce, is “they’re not cell specific, so they kill good cells along with the bad,” which is why many come with devastating side effects that limit their effectiveness. Says Piasecki: “Doctors often have to ask, ‘Is this drug doing more harm than good?’” With the help of advanced computational software that helps chemists design drugs at the molecular level, Piasecki and Pearce are recreating methotrexate’s structure so it’s more effective in human cells. Their modified version of the drug, if successful, will target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact.
Next steps: Thanks to high-level software (Utica College uses the same program as many top pharmaceutical companies), Piasecki and Pearce’s drug currently exists as only a molecular blueprint in the computer. “People think chemistry is all test tubes and beakers,” says Pearce, smiling. “It’s not like that anymore. We can do almost everything on the computer.” This, she explains limits the expense, time, and risk of physically testing new drugs. But now, with a molecular model that appears to be effective, Piasecki and Peace are in the early stages of synthesizing the drug—that is, actually creating it. It’s the first step in designing a treatment that may one day be used in top cancer centers and hospitals.
Why it matters: While everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, for Anna Piasecki, the disease hits even closer to home: Her dad passed away in January after suffering from a rare form of leukemia. And for both young chemists, cancer patients like Piasecki’s late father are never far from their minds. “We’re always thinking of real people when we’re in the lab. ” says Pearce. “We always say that if we can make life better even for one person, it’s all worth it.”