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Immunologist’s research contributes to the fight against cancer

Apr. 4, 2013

Cancer patients could live longer, healthier lives than ever before thanks to groundbreaking research like that being led by Hua-Chen Chang, Ph.D., an associate member of the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center and assistant professor of biology at IUPUI.

Hua-Chen Chang

Hua-Chen Chang, Ph.D.

As a molecular immunologist, Dr. Chang is driven to understand the fundamental nature of how the immune system functions as well as to uncover new methods of improving ways for living cells to fight disease.

Her latest research indicates considerable potential in prolonging the lives of cancer patients by combining existing drug treatments with a synthetic version of lunasin, a natural compound found in soybeans with well-known health benefits.

“Most cancer patients over time develop chemotherapy-resistant cancer cells that are more difficult to combat,” said Dr. Chang, who previously served as a postdoctoral fellow at the IU School of Medicine. “Through this immunotherapy, we can enhance treatment effectiveness by eradicating residual cancer cells and limiting tumor progression.”

“If we can extend the life of a lymphoma patient, for example, for even a few years then this is still a significant and exciting discovery,” she said.

Lunasin was first discovered in 1996 as part of efforts to improve the nutritional profile of soy protein. Research since then has linked the compound to heart health, cholesterol levels and chemical carcinogen transformation of animal cells. Dr. Chang has produced a much more potent synthetic form of lunasin in her lab.

Dr. Chang, along with the graduate students she mentors, have studied the reaction of immune cells in mice once the peptide lunasin is added. The cells responded by activating innate immune cells, such as natural killer cells, thereby enhancing the cell’s natural ability to resist disease cells.

Dr. Chang and assistant

Dr. Chang works with a research assistant in the lab.

“We think this type of recipe of synthetic peptides with existing cancer drugs can be applied to many types of cancer,” Dr. Chang said. 

With support from the IU School of Medicine as well as the IU Simon Cancer Center, Dr. Chang’s method also has been applied to blood samples taken from cancer patients. The results thus far are promising, showing increased effectiveness when compared to samples treated with only the cocktail of cancer drugs commonly used today.

Dr. Chang said she is hopeful researchers across the country will begin to explore the usefulness of her newly designed, synthetic lunasin. She has started a business, Immune Peptide Therapeutics, L.L.C., to distribute the synthetic samples to others interested in expanding on her research.

“As researchers, we are really blessed here at IUPUI with the many opportunities to collaborate with specialists and other immunologists,” said Chang, who has worked in the School of Science at IUPUI since 2009. She now mentors undergraduate and graduate students in her lab as they study to become doctors and researchers. 

“I try to encourage my students to take advantage of these great opportunities to participate in this field,” she added. “I try to inspire and motivate them to think out of the box somewhat. I don’t want them to some day just write a prescription. I want them to understand the mechanism of a drug and how it works in the body.”

Dr. Chang has published extensively on her research and presented at some of the top conferences in her field, such as the International Conference on Clinical and Cellular Immunology in Chicago in October 2012. She also serves on the 2013 General Council for the Autumn Immunology Conference.

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