RPTA: An Alliance Aiming to Make UK 'Center of the Universe' for Innovative Cancer Treatment

One of the newest research teams within the University of Kentucky’s Alliance Research Initiative wants to make UK “the center of the universe” when it comes to an innovative cancer treatment.

Charles Kunos MD, PhD, director of the Markey Cancer Center Clinical Research Office, leads the Radiopharmaceutical Therapy Alliance (RPTA) with Lowell Anthony, MD, division chief of medical oncology. Alongside faculty and trainees from across the University, they are trying to improve pharmaceutical delivery for patients with cancer through radiopharmaceuticals.

Radiopharmaceuticals are reemerging anti-cancer agents that directly target cancer cells, unlike radiation therapy that can cause collateral damage.

The RPTA team has been able to build upon the existing infrastructure at the University of Kentucky, particularly its Markey Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated center. Current members of the RPTA have already received important federal funding in related work, including NCI support for three radiopharmaceutical clinical trials, which Dr. Kunos said is “very impressive.”

“I don't know of another university that has three NCI clinical trials in radiopharmaceuticals,” Dr. Kunos said. “This is a big deal.”

Dr. Kunos would know. Before coming to UK, he was a medical officer in the NCI Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program. In this role, he encouraged experimental therapeutic discovery, implemented clinical trials, monitored clinical trial toxicities, reported adverse events to regulatory agencies and provided public stewardship of U.S. government resources.

During his time at the NCI, Dr. Kunos collaborated with UK researchers on a publication outlining four steps of validating a radiopharmaceutical for clinical use.

  • Prove that there’s the receptors on a tumor.
  • Conduct laboratory research on cells or animals to demonstrate the medicine has the desired treatment effect.
  • Give them a small radioactive tracer to prove that tumors in those animals show the receptor.
  • Hold a human clinical trial.

This publication is the framework for the alliance as it is today.

Though relatively new, the RPTA already has major projects under its umbrella including a trial led by Dr. Kunos and Denise Fabian, MD, to test radiopharmaceuticals on uterine cervix cancer, for which Kentucky has the highest mortality rate among the 48 contiguous states. Aman Chauhan, MD, is also leading two open clinical trials for neuroendocrine cancers, while Zin Myint, MD, is studying radioactive tin with prostate cancer patients.

The RPTA combines expertise from Markey Cancer Center and departments of radiation medicine, radiology, surgery, molecular and cellular biochemistry, and internal medicine, as well as the College of Pharmacy and College of Engineering. The Alliance Research Initiative provides seed funding for RPTA and more than 20 multidisciplinary research teams, with support coming from the College of Medicine, UK HealthCare, and the UK Office of the Vice President for Research.

As the RPTA continues to grow, the hope is that early-career investigators benefit from mentorship along the way, and the alliance is eventually driven by the pilot projects that translate into sustainable funding.

Combining UK’s leading-edge cancer treatment expertise, new perspectives, and the momentum of the Alliance Research Initiative, the RPTA has the capability to meet its goal of making UK the “center of the universe” with radiopharmaceuticals.

RPTA Alliance Team Members:

  • Lowell Anthony, MD, FACP, Chief, Division of Medical Oncology – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Susanne Arnold, MD, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Jessica Blackburn, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Mark Bernard, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Radiation Medicine
  • Aman Chauhan, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Riham El Khouli, MD, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Radiology
  • Denise Fabian, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Radiation Medicine
  • Jill Kolesar, PharmD, Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Charles Kunos, MD, PhD, Medical Director of Markey’s CRO – Department of Radiation Medicine
  • Zin Myint, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Internal Medicine
  • Piotr Rychahou, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery
  • William St Clair, MD, PhD, Professor – Department of Radiation Medicine
  • Guigen Zhang, PhD, Professor – College of Engineering