Scholar Research and Accolades

Our scholars and their research are where the vision and work of ARCS Foundation Portland are realized. The members of the Portland Chapter are proud of our scholars and delighted to record their progress and success.

Lillian Klug Developing Novel Therapies for Treatment of Chemotherapy and Radiation Resistant KIT-Mutant Cancers

Cancers are generally caused my mutations in the DNA that cause otherwise normal cells to behave abnormally and grow uncontrollably. For many cancers the exact DNA mutations that cause cancer are not known. However, there are some cancers that are caused by single specific mutations.

In the lab of Dr. Michael Heinrich, Lillian studies cancers caused by mutations within a single gene called KIT. KIT is a gene that is important for development - it functions by sensing growth signals and tells cells to grow inappropriately. The growth signals stop in adulthood, so the cells stop growing. In the case of cancers, such as GI stromal tumor, melanoma subtypes, and mast cell leukemia, however, mutations within KIT cause it to function again, even in the absence of growth signals and the cells start growing uncontrollably. Fortunately, because we know what causes the cancer to grow, we know how to stop it from growing.

There is a drug that can inhibit the function of mutant KIT and prevent it from telling the cells to grow inappropriately. This drug is called Gleevec, and it is a targeted therapy. Gleevec has revolutionized the treatment of cancers caused by KIT mutations, because many of these cancers are chemo and radiation resistant. On Gleevec, now some patients have survived decades, where previously it was mere months. However, Gleevec is a chronic therapy and patients must take it every day. This means it is not truly a cure, because not all of the cancer cells die. Some cells can survive pressure of the drug and are merely kept from growing, but if the drug pressure were removed they would grow back.

Lillian’s work is to understand the survival mechanisms that these cells use and find ways to target the survival pathways in combination with targeting KIT with Gleevec to kill more cancer cells. She is using drug library screening to identify drugs that target survival pathways in cancer cell lines. Many of these drugs are FDA approved and, once identified, can move swiftly into a clinical trial setting. Lillian is very motivated by the fact that her work may help improve outcomes of people suffering with KIT-mutant cancers.

Read about other scholar achievements:

Dylan Anderson and Michael Lam, ARCS Scholars at Oregon State University, Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Portland ARCS Alum, Allison Anaker, Interviewed on NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow

ARCS Alum Julia Maxson Discovers New Cancer Treatment