From the Benchtop to the World

Doug Conklin points at a computer screen, showing another researcher important work on the screen.

When Doug Conklin started working on cell lines at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, he was out to discover cancer-causing mutations. His field of study, called functional genomics, uses systematic high throughput methods to inhibit genes one by one and see what effect it will have on the growth of the cell. Here at the Cancer Research Center, part of UAlbany’s School of Public Health, he continues this work using a technology he helped develop called short hairpin RNAs (shRNAs). Using these shRNAs, his lab systematically targeted genes until they found one critical for cancer growth: BTK-C.

BTK is a tyrosine kinase, a type of molecule that signals cells to grow and divide. If tyrosine kinases become overactive, cancer can result. BTK was previously only known to be active in B cells, but Conklin’s lab discovered that this gene was being turned on (in the slightly different “C” form) in solid tissue cancer cells as well. Since most cancers are in solid tissues, and 15-20% of them were found to depend on BTK-C, this makes it a very attractive anti-cancer target.

Conklin and other researchers at UAlbany believe that drugs that target BTK-C will decrease the ability of breast cancer and other forms of cancer to spread in the body. But before this potential therapeutic can be of use, it needs to be thoroughly tested through clinical trials. If proven safe and effective in humans, it would then need to be developed and manufactured according to stringent standards of quality control.

“This is one of those things where the real world meets the benchtop,” Conklin explains. For research and drug manufacturing to operate, there needs to be a return on the large cost invested by those who develop the new technologies.

The SUNY Research Foundation owns the patents to Conklin’s latest discovery to protect the intellectual property. The patent can be licensed to a company who could do the necessary testing and develop a drug.

At the end of the day, he said what is most rewarding is to move your discovery out and see it being used to do good for people all over the world. “I can think of nothing more gratifying in science.”