We spoke to Professor Aykut Üren from Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA, about our new research project which aims to improve an existing drug so that it can become a targeted therapy option for Ewing sarcoma patients.

Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I grew up in Ankara, Turkey. I was interested in cancer research during my school years. When I was a medical student at Hacettepe University in Turkey, I came to the United States, to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda Maryland, and worked as a volunteer in research laboratories. When I finished medical school in 1994, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the same institute. That is when I moved to the United States and I have been living here since then. I have been involved in cancer research for more than 25 years. After working as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute for five years and I had another brief postdoc experience at the University of Maryland. I joined the faculty at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 2002. Currently I am a Professor at Georgetown University. My research lab focuses on discovering new drugs for paediatric sarcomas. We have specific projects on Ewing sarcoma, osteosarcoma and rhabdomyosarcoma. I also teach gross anatomy to medical students and cancer biology and molecular biology to graduate students.

Can you tell us about the project and its aims?

The project funded by the Bone Cancer Research Trust is trying to improve an existing drug so that it can become a targeted therapy option for Ewing sarcoma patients. Ewing sarcoma cells have a common feature on their surface. The presence of a protein called CD99 separates Ewing sarcoma from many similar tumours. More importantly, CD99 appears to be critical for growth and aggressiveness of Ewing sarcoma cells. Therefore, we have been trying to develop drugs to target CD99 on Ewing sarcoma cell surface and kill the tumour cells. We discovered that two FDA approved drugs can directly bind to CD99 and kill Ewing sarcoma cells. These drugs are currently used for treating some types of leukemias by a different mechanism inside the cell. Our discovery of them binding to CD99 on the cell surface of Ewing sarcoma creates new opportunities for targeted therapy.

In this project we aim to make modifications in the structure of these existing drugs so that they can still bind to CD99 on the surface of Ewing sarcoma cells but lose their ability to enter the cells. If our experiments can successfully create such a molecule, it will become a Ewing sarcoma specific drug and since it can not enter the cell, we will be eliminating a great majority of the side effects related to these agents, including bone marrow suppression.

What difference could this project make for future Ewing sarcoma patients?

Our studies have the potential to create a novel therapeutic option that will be specific to Ewing sarcoma with reduced side effects, which can both improve overall survival and quality of life of patients suffering from this disease.

How does it feel to receive the Bone Cancer Research Trust's first ever international grant and what would you say to our supporters who are raising funds for research?

That is a great honour. Our team will work on this important project tirelessly and try to come up with new promising drug candidates. The current pandemic is heavily limiting our capabilities and reducing our productivity. We are trying to overcome these challenges by working harder.

To find out more about this pioneering research project, click below.

Research Project