Student discovery drives cancer innovation

Samantha Kendrick and Laurence Hurley, PhD
Samantha Kendrick and Laurence Hurley, PhD

Samantha Kendrick made a scientific discovery, won a competitive award and smashed a gender barrier all while completing her doctoral degree.

A student in the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program since 2005, Kendrick won the 2010 Student Technology Innovation Award for her discovery of a new class of drug receptors and a lead compound. The University of Arizona recognizes students and faculty members annually for exemplary innovative achievements that contribute to the development of new technology.

“I’ve been very honored,” said Kendrick, the first female recipient in the award’s seven-year history. “It’s been a privilege and honor to be part of the program and to work with such amazing faculty.”

Kendrick, 30, is originally from Canada, but lived in Tucson for six years as a child. The future researcher attended Mountain View High School and got hooked on science her senior year thanks to a series of short, specialized science classes.

“I took genetics and I loved it,” she said. “I knew then that I was really interested in biology and diseases and where things go awry.”

After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Kendrick returned to Tucson in 2005 to pursue a doctoral degree.

“I was looking for a cancer-biology-specific program, and there are not very many,” she said. “Here you can take classes like cancer therapeutics and cancer genetics. You spend your first year taking core classes that are all cancer specific so you learn a lot about the pathology of the disease and how it’s treated.”

Interested in drug discovery, Kendrick chose to conduct her dissertation research in the lab of Laurence Hurley, PhD, codirector of the Arizona Cancer Center’s Therapeutic Development Program and UA
professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

Dr. Hurley’s lab focuses on novel molecular targets called DNA secondary structures, which act as switches that turn gene expression on or off. The goal is to create new therapeutics by using small molecules to manipulate DNA secondary structures and turn overexpressed oncogenes off.

Kendrick began studying the Bcl-2 gene, which is overexpressed in a variety of cancers – lymphoma, prostate, breast, small cell lung carcinoma – and plays a role in chemotherapy resistance.

“Obviously for cancer we would like to turn this gene off so we can improve existing chemotherapy,” she said.

After years of research, Kendrick discovered a new class of drug receptors and a lead compound. She was able to show that a particular structure formed within the Bcl-2 region of DNA and she also found a Bcl-2- interactive compound that turns the overexpressed oncogene off. Her experiments demonstrated that chemotherapy alone couldn’t kill chemo-resistant lymphoma cells, but when treated with chemotherapy and the Bcl-2-interactive compound, resistant cancer cells became sensitized to the drug and died.

“I believe this is one of the most important discoveries to come out of my lab,” Dr. Hurley said. “Identifying a new class of drug receptors and a lead compound is a rare event.”

Beyond being a professional accomplishment, the discovery had personal significance to Kendrick, who learned a year and a half ago that her husband has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was treated by Arizona Cancer Center physicians and is now doing well, but the experience served to solidify her passion for cancer research and her interest in chemo-resistant lymphoma.

“It just shows that the research being done here is very applicable to what’s going on in the clinic,” she said.

Kendrick plans to defend her dissertation by December, but the Arizona Cancer Center gets to keep her a bit longer. She is continuing her research as a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Lisa Rimsza, MD, an Cancer Center member and UA pathology professor.

“I’m still interested in pursing Bcl-2 and how important it is in chemo-resistant lymphoma,” Kendrick said. “Now I will be looking at it at the patient level. I’ll be looking at a variety of subtypes of lymphomas as well as where they are in their treatment and get some information regarding the differences in the Bcl-2 expression profiles.”

Kendrick hopes to go into academia someday, but she’s determined to never stray far from translational cancer research.

“All research impacts the clinic at some point, but I want to be closer to that,” she said. “I’ve always remained fairly grounded in how this disease affects people and their caregivers and I want to more directly be able to help them, to have something come of my research that’s going to not take so long to get to them. I just really want to help people.”