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UTHSC Team Awarded $2.27 Million for New Breast Cancer Therapy Research

(From left) Dr. Wei Li, Dr. Duane Miller, and Dr. Tiffany Seagroves have been awarded $2.27 million to study a potential next-generation treatment for late-stage breast cancer.  (Photo by Lee Ferguson/UTHSC)

A research team at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center has been awarded $2.27 million to study a potential next-generation treatment for late-stage breast cancer.

Wei Li, PhD, professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and director of the UTHSC College of Pharmacy Drug Discovery Center, and Tiffany Seagroves, PhD, professor of Pathology in the UTHSC College of Medicine and vice chancellor for Research Core Labs, are dual principal investigators on the Department of Defense grant. Duane Miller, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, is a co-investigator.

The project is titled “Discovery of Orally Bioavailable Tubulin Inhibitor to Overcome Taxane Resistance in Metastatic Breast Cancer” and focuses on VERU-111, a first-in-class selective small molecule that targets and disrupts microtubules in cancer cells. Both in vitro and in vivo animal studies conducted by the team demonstrate the molecule’s ability to inhibit tumor growth and metastasis, as well as overcome multidrug resistance. Nonclinical studies show that VERU-111 does not appear to cause nerve damage (neurotoxicity), a serious side effect of chemotherapy agents (taxanes) currently used against triple negative breast cancer.
Dr. Seagroves is excited that the compound would provide an effective oral alternative to IV treatments, and that it also delays progression of established metastatic lesions. “VERU-111 will improve patient quality of life, and could be an effective treatment option for those patients who have failed taxanes,” she said. “VERU-111’s ability to bypass taxane resistance will ultimately increase patient survival by continuing to supress metastatic outgrowth, the cause of mortality in breast cancer.”

VERU-111 originated in the lab of Dr. Li, who worked with Dr. Miller and James Dalton, PhD, dean of the Univeristy of Michigan, College of Pharmarcy, for over 10 years to develop the molecule. “VERU-111 has been licensed by VERU, Inc., which has been conducting clinical trials in prostate cancer patients since late 2018. The trials are going very well, as far as I know from our monthly discussions with VERU,” Dr. Li said. “While VERU-111 is highly promising, improving its anticancer potency and metabolic stability by further optimizing its structures would allow lower, more effective doses. Dr. Miller and I are teaming with Dr. Seagroves’ lab to generate critical preclinical data to support the clinical trials of VERU-111 or its improved analogs in metastatic breast cancer treatment, particularly in triple negative breast cancer.” The team intends to work with VERU closely to help bring a more effective tubulin inhibitor to metastatic breast cancer patients within five years.