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Pharmacy Professor, Students Begin Grant-Supported Research into Natural Product Anticancer Drugs

Ferris State UniversityFerris State University is underway with grant-funded research into natural product anticancer drugs, which is being led by a College of Pharmacy assistant professor.

Eric Nybo is the principal investigator of a study entitled “A Novel Metabolic Engineering Platform for Production of Anthracyclinones” supported by the ADVANCE Proof of Concept Grant Fund. The project is one of five proposals submitted by researchers at state-funded universities that received awards. Grants were made in amounts up to $40,000, and a matching contribution has been offered by each recipient university. The fund is administered by Michigan State University, with matching funds provided by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's Entrepreneurship and Innovation initiative and the Michigan Strategic Fund. Including a match from the program and Ferris, $61,000 is the total available to support Nybo’s study.

Denise Graves, the university relations director with the MEDC, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Initiative stated that the Michigan Strategic Fund approved the two-year ADVANCE Proof of Concept Grant program in late 2016. Resources are still available for more research proposals that can be submitted through the rolling request for proposals cycle. Proposals are reviewed by a committee and selected to receive matching funds for a one year project.

“This is an important program, as university research can be commercialized to benefit our state,” Graves said. “The technologies developed by university-led research can be licensed to Michigan businesses or a startup company helping to create jobs and allow the state to see a benefit on its investment at this early stage of work. We hope to see this program continue to receive funding, as it can provide key financial resources for very early-stage research at the university level.”

“A provisional patent application was filed this June with the process underway for a utility patent,” Nybo said. “We are in the early stages of this study, and we are collecting data for proof of concept of the invention.”

Anthracyclines have become mainstay anticancer drugs for over six decades. Anthracyclines are natural products synthesized from Streptomyces, or soil-dwelling, gram-positive microorganisms that produce many clinically-used antibiotics. Nybo said daunorubicin and doxorubicin are representative clinical examples of anthracyclines which are not well-tolerated by the patients who receive them as they can cause cardiotoxicity and subsequent heart failure following their use in focused treatment of the cancer.

“Anthracyclines are administered to fight various blood-based cancers, such as leukemias, non-and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, breast cancer and ovarian cancer,” Nybo said. “If our project is successful, we would seek to create unnatural genetic pathways, sort of like a biological ‘Lego Brick’ construction. This is a process known as synthetic biology. Furthermore, employing synthetic biology to redesign these natural systems also involves metabolic engineering, which concerns the alteration of the metabolism of these cells to create our desired drug molecules.”

Nybo noted the research has been a learning opportunity for undergraduate student Jennifer Tran, a Biotechnology student from Lansing, along with a fourth-year Pharmacy student Kayla Maki, from Big Rapids. The students have assisted in the early sampling and chemical analysis of anthracyclines, to pursue the proofs they desire in terms of metabolic engineering.

“These students have offered phenomenal assistance as we establish this study,” Nybo said. “They have been growing strains, and doing chemical analysis of the materials.”

Nybo said there are milestones they expect to reach in their studies within the next year, but the project will have advancing stages of work, which will encompass three to six years of research activity by the time the effort is complete.

“It is a very ambitious undertaking, which can be built out in stages,” Nybo said. “We will proceed appropriately.”

The study is proceeding in laboratory space in Ferris’ Hagerman Pharmacy Building, along with the Shimadzu Core Laboratory for Academic and Research Excellence, in the university’s Ferris’ Arts and Science Commons.

Applications are open for eligible projects can apply online on a rolling basis.

The initiative is supported by MEDC’s entrepreneur and innovation division, committed to making Michigan an ideal place to launch and grow a business by building and supporting a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem across the state.

The MEDC is the state’s marketing arm and lead advocate for business development, job awareness and community and talent development with the focus on growing Michigan’s economy. For more information on the MEDC and our initiatives, visit For Pure Michigan® tourism information, your trip begins at Pure Michigan. Visit Pure Michigan Talent Connect at for more information on Michigan’s online marketplace for connecting job seekers and employers. Join the conversation on: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

PHOTO CAPTION: Ferris State University College of Pharmacy Assistant Professor Eric Nybo has collaborated with Biotechnology student Jennifer Tran, of Lansing (pictured) and fourth-year Pharmacy student Kayla Maki, of Big Rapids, in research work supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The ADVANCE Proof of Concept Grant fund is supporting their project, titled “A Novel Metabolic Engineering Platform for Production of Anthracyclinones.”