An exciting time for BYU cancer research

This is an exciting time for Dr. Dan Simmons to be involved with BYU's Cancer Research Center.

Cancer - and the major breakthroughs by researchers across the country - has been publicized recently in national newspapers and magazines and on network news broadcasts.BYU's Cancer Research Center, directed by Dr. Simmons, recently received national attention when Dr. Kim O'Neill, a microbiologist, published an article earlier this year suggesting caffeine may prohibit cancerous cells from dying.

Dr. Simmons is quick to explain, however, that Dr. O'Neill's research - as well as other breakthroughs by researchers at BYU - is much broader than his studies on the relationship between caffeine and cancer cells.

Dr. O'Neill "specifically works on diagnosis and early detection of cancer," said Dr. Simmons. "He specializes in the diagnosis and prognosis or breast cancer."

Last year Dr. O'Neill announced a new test for the detection of breast cancer through a process which measures thymidine kinase I (TKI), an enzyme his research has shown is present in elevated levels of breast cancer tumors. Previous diagnostic tests have been problematic, time consuming and cumbersome, Dr. O'Neill said.

Other research at the BYU center includes breakthroughs by Dr. Merritt B. Andrus. He is working to shut down a protein that pumps chemotherapeutic drugs out of cancerous cells. "The main problem with chemotherapy is that cells become resistant to drugs," he said.

Dr. Andrus praised the work of the BYU center - noting he and his colleagues are working to raise the awareness of cancer research among non-scientists. "A lot of people are frustrated that cancer has taken so long to cure," he said. "It is a very difficult disease, because it involves so many different kinds of cells and its causes are not known in many cases. Also, many of the drugs used to treat cancer are 30 to 40 years old."

But this year, funding for cancer research - and the number of students interested in doing research on the topic - is increasing almost faster than faculty members can conduct experiments.

One BYU student after another knocked on Dr. Simmons' office door this spring - expressing interest in a new summer fellowship program sponsored by the school's cancer research center.

Today, 10 of the more than 300 of those students are conducting cancer research. Dr. Simmons said the cancer center fits perfectly into a university like BYU - where undergraduate research studies are becoming an emphasis. As he and the other 25 faculty members working with the center make breakthroughs in cancer research, they will also be training students who they hope will continue to study cancer after they leave the university. The best way, he continued, to give students a first-rate college experience is to be on the cutting edge of research at BYU.

"There are many, highly motivated, bright, empathetic students who have a global vision and concern for big issues - such as finding cures for the diseases that afflict mankind," said Dr. Simmons. "These are the students that we wish to motivate."

Dr. Simmons explained that the fellowships are the first round of what he hopes will be annual undergraduate cancer research.

They are also part of a major restructuring of cancer research at BYU. The restructuring began last fall when a new board of directors was appointed for the cancer center.

BYU's Cancer Research Center was founded in 1978 by Roland K. Robins - who through hard work and creativity received numerous research grants. Years later Dr. Robins left BYU for a very successful career in industry.

Dr. Simmons, who began leading the cancer center 11 months ago, said, with the help of the new board and several dedicated faculty members, BYU hopes to carry on Dr. Robins' vision.

The number of students that expressed interest in the intensive fellowship program prove that there is a broad interest out there, he said.

Dr. Simmons noted that the BYU faculty years ago was given a charge by President Harold B. Lee, at the inauguration of then-BYU Pres. Dallin H. Oaks, "to give constant stimulation to these budding scientists and scholars in all fields and to urge them to push back further and further into the realms of the unknown."

He said President Lee, then first counselor in the First Presidency, also said during his address: "We would hope that you would give to the students of this institution the vision of the possibility that the Eyring Science Center could make a significant contribution to the discovery of a cure for cancer."

Dr. Simmons noted that this year is the first time the Cancer Center has been able to obtain undergraduate fellowship funding - which was generated from faculty inventions, donations, and the proceeds of the Rex E. Lee Memorial Run.

The director is currently working on written proposals seeking additional funding for next year - when he hopes there will be enough money for more students to spend the summer doing cancer research. "Our goal is to give every qualified student with the interest an opportunity here, or at another institution around the country, to do cancer research," he said.

Dr. Simmons is also very positive about the future of cancer research at BYU. When the BYU Eyring Science Center was rededicated last March, it included an office for the BYU Cancer Center. Now, said Dr. Simmons, as students and faculty work together, BYU will indeed "make significant contributions to the discovery of a cure for cancer."

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