“I realized how much he liked the songs on my favorite playlist,” said Brady-Kalnay, an associate professor in the molecular biology and microbiology department at Case Western Reserve University. Maybe music can determine whether someone around you is worth knowing, she thought. So she, her husband and brother collaborated on a patent for a mobile application that would alert you when someone nearby has musical tastes that matched yours.
“It’s an automatic interview of compatibility,” Brady-Kalnay said.
That’s just one of five patents attached to Brady-Kalnay’s name. Others deal with connections, too, but they’re focused more on how certain proteins fuel the world’s most dangerous cancers. And in that case, Brady-Kalnay’s more interested in breaking the bond than she is strengthening it.
Brady-Kalnay is the lead researcher on a new study announced Tuesday that offers a potential path to block the aggressive growth of glioblastoma multiforme, a lethal form of cancer also known as GBM. Her team’s research has found a protein that stimulates the spread of a GBM throughout brain and also demonstrates how a small, designer protein has blocked that growth in early tests.
Brady-Kalnay called the discovery the first piece of translational medicine she’s created to treat cancer, which means it could go from the research bench to the bedside. She’s also developing a way to deliver the drug to the cancerous cells.
“If I could stop the cell from migrating I can cure cancer,” she said.
That transcendent achievement is years away at best, as the discovery must endure years of testing and scrutiny. But her peers praise the work as both critical and unique in the way it attacks GBM.
Brady-Kalnay’s expertise is in the area of cell adhesion molecules, which controls the movement of cells, and in particular a molecule in that process: PTPmu. In GBM, that same molecule is cut into fragments and acts as a signal for the cancerous cells to move and expand.
That’s one of the things that make GBM so dangerous. The cells move throughout the brain making them hard to remove. Brady-Kalnay contrasted removing most cancers like removing a tennis ball. Removing GBM is like taking out an octopus with invisible tentacles. Plus, as GBM cells spread out, they often become resistant to radiation and chemotherapy. About half the patients die within a year of diagnosis.
But Brady-Kalnay’s team found methods to block PTPmu from cutting into fragments and triggering migration. She also found a way through her protein research to block the effect of the molecule even after it had shattered.
“It’s an entirely novel approach that no one in the brain tumor field has ever thought of before,” said Dr. Frank Longo, chairman of the neurology and neurological sciences department at Stanford University, who worked with Brady-Kalnay on earlier research projects but not on this research.
Longo said the unique approach is also reflective of Brady-Kalnay. He described her as an “incredibly creative thinker” who, unlike many academics, can easily connect discipline from brain cancer to retinal research.
“Usually people in this field will focus on the one protein they are studying,” Longo said. “What she’s exceptional at is looking at the broad perspective and looking at the whole field and not just the field she’s studying.
“In medicine, many of the best discoveries are made by people like Susann, who take the basic principal they figured out in one area and create it in another area,” he said.
Kalnay was born in Cleveland on the city’s West Side in the now shuttered Grace Hospital. Her father was a NASA engineer and her mother an elementary school teacher - they actually met on the Case Western Reserve campus.
Maybe her scientific creativity makes her desire to patent an iPhone application less surprising. The idea mixes concepts about online social and business networks, music and geography together. She points out there are online compatibility tests that require “filling out hundreds of questions,” but people who may be compatible can be far away.
Plus, people would be just as apt to connect either at a business convention or on a personal level if they knew someone nearby matched had similar musical tastes — right down to the most-played song from an iPhone. They could also get an alert about those who liked music they can’t stand.
“My view of music is that it’s a window to your soul,” Brady-Kalnay said. Using wireless communication technologies on iPhones and other devices and comparing music tastes, she said, let’s people “find that needle in a haystack without doing the hard work.”
Brady-Kalnay’s next quest will be to find basic partnerships to develop her cancer discovery, as well as focus on a method to deliver proteins to the brain and block the cancer from developing. At the moment, the molecules she’s tested can’t be used to treat GBM because they break down too quickly once they reach the body. She and her team now hope to find a way to protect the peptide from degrading, and develop an injectable compound to mimic the peptide and to test those compounds in animal models of GBM.
She’s also been talking with local contract research organizations about how to manage further tests and is studying the best way, for when the time comes, to approach a U.S. Food & Drug Administration application. “This takes you into an area I’ve never been in before,” she said.
Her research will be online Tuesday at Cancer Research. The study’s first author was Case graduate student Adam Burgoyne, and also included neurosurgeons Dr. Shenandoah Robinson and Dr. Andrew E. Sloan, and Robert H Miller, an authority on glial cell development.
[Front-page photo courtesy of Flickr user cogdog]