“All of us, unfortunately, have a personal experience with cancer impacting a friend or family member. It touches a lot of our hearts. I saw the depths of what we could not treat through the life experience of a friend,” Matthew Boudreau, PhD Candidate in Chemistry said. “I think that was the first spark for me to become involved in cancer research.”
Around the same time, in undergrad, Matthew began to fall in love with chemistry at NC State. He began asking how he could make new chemicals or new drugs that could be therapies for lethal cancers. “The idea that we could develop new chemicals or new drugs in the lab that can make it all the way from the fume hood to the clinic - that’s what gets me up in the morning,” he explained.
In the beginning of the second year of his PhD, Matthew did just that. In what started as a side project in the Hergenrother lab collaborating with the Shapiro lab, he synthesized a molecule that is planned to be tested in cancer patients in the coming year. Based on preclinical models, the molecule, ErSO, is expected to be able to fully regress drug-resistant breast tumors. His work is a potential breakthrough in how we treat hormone-positive cancers (a grouping of cancers that includes breast cancer and ovarian cancer) in patients. Excitingly, ErSO and its related technologies have been licensed to Bayer and Systems Oncology for clinical translation.
This year, Matthew was awarded the prestigious National Cancer Institute (NCI) Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award to continue his novel work on chemistry applications for cancer treatment throughout the rest of his PhD in Chemistry at Illinois and during his postdoctoral work at another institution. After he completes his tenure as an NCI Fellow, he intends to stay in academia and start his own lab to mentor and train a new generation of chemists and cancer researchers.
Now in his fifth year at Illinois, Matthew splits his time in the lab between both the chemical fume hood and the biosafety cabinet. The ability to seamlessly combine chemistry and biology through a membership with the NIH’s Chemistry-Biology Training Interface Program is one of the things that initially drew Matthew to Illinois. “We have our chemistry space integrated with our biology space. When you see a problem in biology, you wonder what chemistry can be utilized to fix it, and then you are actually equipped to do the experiments to make it work,” he explained.
Another exciting part of the Illinois cancer research community is the partnership with the College of Veterinary Medicine's comparative oncology program, through which companion animals (pets) can benefit from experimental medical treatment when their medical conditions are inoperable or not responding to current treatments. Researchers also benefit from seeing how potential new treatments impact tumors in a more natural setting, which more closely mimics human disease and thus provides better information prior to human clinical trials. “We are pretty good at predicting the tolerability of a given experimental treatment preclinically, but the efficacy is really hard to predict, and most clinical trials fail due to the lack of efficacy or effectiveness,” he explained. This might not have to be the case when comparative oncology approaches are used to prioritize experimental treatments prior to human trials. Matthew has been part of a team at Illinoi which seeks to do just that, utilize companion animals in a feline clinical trial to help treat feline cancer patients, as well as develop a novel therapy for human head and neck cancer.
“At Illinois, we have chemists linked with biologists linked with veterinarians, having a relationship on a day to day basis. Solutions are found by integrating a variety of fields," Matthew said.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health offers the "Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award (F99/K00)" to help outstanding graduate students pursue careers as independent cancer researchers. The award facilitatese the transition of talented graduate students into successful cancer research postdoctoral appointments and provide opportunities for career development activities relevant to their long-term goals of becoming independent cancer researchers. This is a limited submission competition, which means that students do not apply directly to NCI. Instead, universities conduct internal competitions, and each university may submit one nomination to NCI for consideration in the national competition. See the listing in Fellowship Finder for more information.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD candidate in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in subculture leisure spaces and her dissertation explores narratives of home at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.