The magazine for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Iowa State University

Targeting cancer, alleviating chemo's side effects

The possible side effects of chemotherapy can be more notorious than its life-saving potential. Many patients must endure extreme nausea, hair loss, and weakness due to red and white blood cell loss, making the treatment almost as brutal on a patient as it is on the tumor. But imagine if researchers could find a way to make chemotherapy more bearable – or even eliminate it all together.

Martha Vincent (biology and education, B.S. ’75) has spent nearly 30 years working in cancer research. Throughout her career, she has led the development of several drugs and antibodies that could make receiving chemotherapy a “non-issue.”

In 1987 she joined Amgen, Inc., a biopharmaceutical company co-founded by another LAS grad, Marvin Caruthers (chemistry, B.S. ’62), now the largest independent biotechnology firm in the world. There, she led the charge to receive FDA approval for Neupogen, a groundbreaking drug that stimulates the growth of white blood cells.

The drug is used to prevent infections by replacing important white blood cells, called neutrophils, in patients whose immune systems are suppressed due to chemotherapy. The drug has been effective in approximately 95 percent of patients treated, and has very minimal side effects.

“Our research is all about finding a target on cancer cells,” she said. “We develop antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) that will bind to the cancer cells that have the target and kill them.”

“Neupogen was approved in just four and a half years, which is an extremely short amount of time,” Vincent said. “Most of the time, the FDA can take 10 years or more to approve a drug.”

Because Neupogen can accelerate the production of white blood cells – which fight infections – chemo treatments become a bit more bearable, and patients recover more quickly and can receive their next dose of chemo on time (rather than delaying their therapy and risking worsening their disease).

Today, Vincent is the Vice President of Clinical Research and Development at Agensys, Inc, a biotech company in Santa Monica, Calif., that develops therapeutic monoclonal antibodies to treat solid tumor cancers.

“Our research is all about finding a target on cancer cells,” she said. “We develop antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) that will bind to the cancer cells that have the target and kill them.”

To do this, an ADC is attached to a chemo molecule, which then finds the cancer cells. ADCs are a form of targeted therapy, and can discriminate between healthy and diseased tissue. ADCs are complex molecules that combine the targeting capabilities of monoclonal antibodies with the cancer-killing ability of cytotoxic (anti-cancer) drugs.

Agensys, Inc. is working on developing numerous ADCs that target cancerous cells found in bladder cancer and other cancers, including lung, breast, kidney, and prostate.

Martha Vincent, from New Jersey, attended Iowa State University after a friend who was interested in veterinary medicine picked ISU. She loved the big-school environment, as well as the thriving sports teams and Greek system. After graduating, she returned to New Jersey for a job as a research tech at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now affiliated with Rutgers School of Biomedical and Health Sciences). After teaching in several graduate research labs, a professor convinced her to go back to school. She earned her Ph.D. in pharmacology, and completed post doc work in Philadelphia before working in New York City and New Jersey. In 1987, she began work at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif., until moving to Agensys Inc. in 2004.