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Wei Li of UTHSC Receives $1.9 Million to Study New Ways to Target and Weaken Cancer Cells

Wei Li
Dr. Wei Li, professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UTHSC, will lead a team to study new methods to target and weaken cancer cells.

Wei Li, PhD, a researcher at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has received a $1.91 million grant to study new ways to weaken cancer cells by targeting one of their components called survivin. The grant from the National Institutes of Health will be distributed over five years.

Dr. Li is a professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy. The project is titled, “Selective Targeting Survivin for Cancer Therapy.”

Central to Dr. Li’s work is apoptosis. This is the process by which most cells stop growing after they reach a certain point, and eventually die off. Without apoptosis, cells would grow too large and encroach on surrounding cells, which is what cancer cells do. Cancer cells “hijack the process,” Dr. Li said.

“Cancer cells have developed a lot of methods to evade the apoptotic process,” Dr. Li said. “In you or me, cells can stop growing at defined stages. Tumors don’t. That’s the problem.”

“Cells have proteins which regulate the apoptotic process,” he continued. “Some proteins, however, are anti-apoptosis.” One such protein is survivin, a member in a class of proteins called “inhibitor of apoptosis proteins.”

“In the cells of a normal adult, there is almost no survivin,” Dr. Li explained. “It occurs in large amounts only in a cancer cell and in a fetus, which, of course, is growing rapidly.” Survivin, however, goes hand-in-hand with tumor progression, drug resistance and poor patient survival rates.

Dr. Li and his team – Dr. Muxiang Zhou at Emory University and Drs. Duane Miller, Bernd Meibohm, David Hamilton at UTHSC – hope to make a compound that could degrade survivin in cancer cells, making them more susceptible to anti-cancer therapies, and further determine the exact mechanisms of action for these compounds

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.