Philip S. Low, an LDS biochemist, is leading a research team that has developed a way to insert medicine into the body to fight diseases by taking advantage of the way a cell accepts vitamins.
The discovery unleashes an abundance of opportunities for advances in drug delivery and could be a possible means of treating cancer and other diseases in the future, according to Dr. Low, head of the biochemistry division of the Purdue University Chemistry Department.In a Church News telephone interview, Dr. Low, 44, a high councilor in the Lafayette Indiana Stake, compared the discovery to giving a dog heart worm medicine in a ball of hamburger.
A large protein molecule, for example, is disguised by attaching a vitamin to the molecule. The protein is then accepted into the cell along with the desired vitamin, he explained.
Cell membranes are designed to exclude things the cell doesn't need and want, and to facilitate the uptake of things that the cell needs and wants such as sugars, amino acids, nucleic acids and vitamins, Dr. Low continued.
"We have basically fooled the cell by attaching a vitamin which is something the cell wants to take up to other macromolecules."
With this process, termed receptor mediated endocytosis, scientists may be able to use large molecules such as proteins, antibodies, enzymes, toxins and genes to treat disease. The process allows them to insert the molecules into cells without damaging or changing the cell structure.
The discovery was made in 1989 by a graduate student working in Dr. Low's laboratory. The student was trying to learn why a protein wouldn't enter a cell. To trace the movement of the protein, the student attached a vitamin chemical that would leave traces.
"We immediately recognized what was happening and identified the tremendous potential of the discovery," Dr. Low recounted. "The observation was not preconceived and tested, but rather was something that happened in the course of another experiment.
"In a sense it was luck, but we were also prepared to take advantage of the good fortune. That is probably the source of 90 percent of the discoveries of science - an observation arrives that you had not anticipated and, upon scrutinizing further, leads to an important discovery."
Purdue acquired a patent on the discovery and is working with several pharmaceutical companies to research the process. Dr. Low has also published a number of articles on his research in scientific journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the past only small molecules have been designed by pharmaceutical companies to enter a cell by passing through the membrane or slipping through one of the cell's regular transport systems.
"Currently most of the biochemistry that we deal with occurs inside and not outside cells," Dr. Low remarked. "The problem facing the pharmaceutical industry is not only to find a molecule that is effective for doing whatever you want it to do, but also to find a way to deliver it to the right spot, to get it into the cell."
The researcher grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., as the son of well-known Purdue agronomy professor Philip S. Low. His father was recently asked to join the National Academy of Sciences, a move that indicates a person is considered a world leader in his or her field, the younger Low said.
He thought his father's life as a professor was nice, but didn't intend to be a scientist. Instead, he attended BYU on a basketball scholarship and planned to study medicine or law. But he enjoyed his college classes so much he gradually decided he wanted to be a science professor. "I even took business classes, but later decided to stick with science," he said.
He graduated from BYU in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, then received his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California at San Diego in 1975 and began working at Purdue in 1976.
"Education was very strongly stressed in our home," Dr. Low said, reflecting on his childhood. "I liked basketball, but was threatened [by his parentsT to be taken off the team if I didn't get good grades in high school."
His father also provided an example through his devotion to the Church, Dr. Low said. He served as a stake president and regional representative in the area.
"What I have observed in his life has been, by and large, a natural tendency in my own," he commented. "I see how he divided time between Church, family and career. That has been a good example for me. I believe I have been able to maintain a balance because of his example. Too many scientists become unbalanced, leading to difficulties at home and elsewhere in their personal lives."
Dr. Low and his wife, Joan, were married in 1969. They met while serving in the West German Mission. The Lows - members of the Purdue Ward - have five children: Philip, 21; Tara, 19; Emily, 17; Justin, 13; and Stewart, 9.
Dr. Low said his work as a scientist has only strengthened his testimony.
"I have never been bothered by any conflicts between science and religion. I do believe that it requires one to change gears somewhat, mental gears, in that the scientist needs to be extremely critical and skeptical about everything, doubting rather than believing.
"A religious person, on the other hand, needs to exhibit faith and approach a difficult concept with belief," he continued. "Then evidence follows, rather than the opposite in science, which requires evidence first.
"But there are too many places where science supports and in fact confirms my belief."
While scientists are years away from any type of clinical application in endocytosis, Dr. Low and his team are researching several possible applications of the process.
"We are looking at it as a means of treating cancer cells with toxins to specifically eliminate the cancer cell without modifying or injuring neighboring or normal cells," he explained.
"We are also looking at the possibility of developing oral vaccines by delivering proteins across the [the stomach and intestinesT. Normally the intestines can transport protein fragments up to two or three amino acids in length into the bloodstream. By attaching vitamins intact, large proteins could be carried across instead of being digested."
Dr. Low continued: "To bring the discovery of a new drug or new method of delivering drugs requires $100 million and 10 years of research. That's the average. We are at the beginning of the stage, but we have promising results." - Sheridan R. Sheffield