Patrick Gunning: Young Alumnus of the Year 2010
Each year, the University recognises the achievements of alumni who have made a major contribution to the community, arts, science or business. The 2010 Young Alumnus of the Year is Professor Patrick Gunning (BSc 2001, PhD 2005). Avenue finds out about the work he’s been doing to create more effective and less toxic cures for cancer.
‘I’ve won several research awards in the last three years but Young Alumnus was the crowning one. When I got the letter it was such a surprise, so that was really nice,’ Professor Gunning says. ‘I really enjoyed my time studying at Glasgow. I got my love of research from my fourth-year undergraduate research project in Professor Robert Peacock’s lab.
I loved my PhD, I published four papers and got the bug for publishing. From that point on I decided – this is what I want to do.’
These days, he heads a team of 12 researchers who, in collaboration with Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto and Dr James Turskon at the University of Central Florida, are working to create molecules that help to eliminate cancer cells.
‘Principally, we’re looking at leukaemia lymphoma, multiple myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells), and breast cancer,’ Professor Gunning explains. ‘Current drugs are very non-specific and highly toxic. What we want to do is to make drugs that are molecularly targeted so that they attack a specific protein, STAT3. Evidence suggests that STAT3 is involved in drug resistance, so if we can knock out this protein’s function, we could ultimately administer lower doses of toxic chemotherapies and reduce the side-effects of chemotherapy.
‘In order to do this we design,’ he says. ‘We look at the protein surface, the areas where other proteins interact, and identify a target region for molecular intervention. Essentially we make a molecule that fits the target region. It’s known as molecular recognition. Rationally designed drug molecules bind to STAT3 protein and stop their aberrant function in cancer cells.’
Professor Gunning’s ideas have garnered accolades such as the David Rae Memorial Award for Leukaemia Research in 2008, the Ontario Early Researcher Award, and this year, the Boehringer Ingelheim Young Investigator Award in organic chemistry, but his future wasn’t always so clear cut. In sixth year at school, he was ‘within an hour’ of choosing to study architecture over chemistry. What made up his mind, he says, was that he didn’t like the idea of being at university for seven years.
‘I actually made my decision because I thought chemistry would only be a four-year course,’ he explains. ‘I ended up following my degree with a three-year PhD, then a two-year postdoc at Yale and now I live and breathe in a university, so it’s funny how things happen.’
And as it turns out, his interest in design has proved to be an advantage in the fields of organic and medicinal chemistry. ‘I think that having an artistic background has made me think about the way things look as well,’ he says. ‘I won’t discard a proposed molecule because it looks unconventional or quirky. In some ways I think I actually prefer to make molecules because they look cool and I want to see if we can make it. The current inhibitors that we have designed and synthesised kill cancer cells selectively. They don’t kill healthy cells, and that’s what is so exciting about them. Obviously, you want drugs with as few side-effects as possible, so our molecules are exhibiting the kind of properties you want in a new drug. You see images of ever-expanding breast cancer cells, and then you see them all dead when treated with your compound that you made in the lab. That’s really quite rewarding.’