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W. W. Smith Charitable Trust Awards Geneticist $127,000 Grant for Fox Chase Cancer Center Research to Improve Chemotherapy

PHILADELPHIA (January 20, 1999) -- The W. W. Smith Charitable Trust of Newtown Square, Pa., has awarded a two-year grant totaling $127,000 to Dr. Maureen E. Murphy of Blue Bell, Pa., a molecular biologist in the pharmacology department of Fox Chase Cancer Center. The grant will fund Murphy's research on how commonly found mutations in a tumor-suppressor gene affect cancer cells' response to the drug Taxol, an important drug in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers.

Murphy's research focuses on the p53 gene. It normally polices cells for the presence of detrimental environmental influences, such as DNA damage, insufficient oxygen or inappropriate cellular growth. The latter is the hallmark of human cancer. If such harmful factors are present, p53 triggers the process of programmed cell death (known as apoptosis)(in effect, causing the mutant cells to self-destruct.

Defects in the p53 gene leave cells unable to self-destruct, even if they are proliferating inappropriately. This can lead to the initiation of cancer. Mutations in p53 also render cancer cells resistant to cell death caused by agents that damage DNA, including the majority of drugs used in chemotherapy. Thus a defective p53 gene can not only initiate a tumor but can cause it to progress.

Alterations, or mutations, in this gene have been found in more than 60 percent of human tumors. Cancer cells with an altered p53 gene are more likely to spread and to resist treatment with anticancer drugs or radiation therapy. Murphy and others, however, have found that the drug Taxol (paclitaxel) is more likely to kill cancer cells with p53 mutations than other cancer cells.

"We have found that Taxol can target and kill tumors that are resistant to most other forms of chemotherapy," Murphy explained. "At Fox Chase, we have also identified the likely mechanism by which Taxol accomplishes this remarkable feat. If this drug is to reach its full clinical potential as an anti-tumor agent, it is important for us to develop a fundamental understanding of this mechanism."

Murphy's new project being supported by The W. W. Smith Charitable Trust is designed to help improve the effectiveness of Taxol and related drugs by enhancing the understanding of how Taxol works. She also hopes to define more precisely the types of tumors with p53 mutations that respond most effectively to the drug.

"Development of further knowledge in this area will likely lead to increased success in treating cancer patients," she said. Murphy earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Cook College at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and her Ph.D. in molecular biology and genetics from the University of Pennsylvania. She held a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University from 1994 until joining Fox Chase Cancer Center's medical science division in February 1998.

The W. W. Smith Charitable Trust--one of the largest private foundations in the Philadelphia area--grants more than $7 million annually to support Delaware Valley basic biomedical research, college scholarships and social services for children and the elderly. Since 1977, the Trust has given Fox Chase Cancer Center 21 competitively awarded research grants totaling more than $2.5 million for research on cancer and AIDS. In addition, the Trust recently gave Fox Chase a $1.5 million endowment for the William Wikoff Smith Chair in Cancer Research.

Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of 35 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation. The Center's activities include basic and clinical research, prevention, detection and treatment of cancer and community outreach programs.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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