Photo of Kun Cheng with representatives from the American Cancer Society

Three times the results

Multiple grants and patents support researcher’s novel treatments for cancer and other diseases

Kun Cheng, Ph.D., spends his days looking for tiny solutions to some very big problems.

His research focuses on peptides, tiny molecules made up of amino acids. Peptides present an exciting new avenue for research into drug therapy for various cancers and other serious diseases. Cheng has made it his mission to continuously uncover and improve peptide-based treatments.

That mission has been supported three times by the National Institutes of Health and its various entities, putting Cheng on the forefront of treating cancer and other diseases.

In 2017, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences granted Cheng $1.2 million to explore a peptide-based treatment for prostate cancer. Cheng’s team aimed to improve the solubility and specificity of a chemotherapy drug using a peptide-based platform and successfully obtained a U.S. patent for the project earlier this year. Currently, Cheng’s team is working to show that this platform can be used for other chemotherapy agents that have poor solubility and specificity.

“Immunotherapy using monoclonal antibody has now evolved into the most promising therapy for various cancers,” Cheng says. “However, its large size may limit its activity inside tumor tissues. This peptide-based system demonstrates very promising anti-tumor activity.”

Cheng notes that peptides are more flexible than antibodies, because a much wider array of drugs can be attached to them. They also trigger no immune response, making them safer than antibodies as well.

Cheng has also obtained a patent for his combination therapy for alcoholic liver fibrosis. This project, funded by a $1.758 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, aims to reverse alcoholic liver fibrosis using nanotechnology to deliver a gene-silencing large molecule called siRNA that was discovered in Cheng’s laboratory. Currently, liver fibrosis has no standard treatment and, left untreated, leads to cirrhosis, an irreversible condition. In Cheng’s treatment, peptides are used for targeted drug delivery to reverse liver fibrosis, displaying their diverse capabilities.

Cheng’s third project funded by the National Institutes of Health expands upon the use of peptides for cancer treatment. In 2018, he received a $1.772 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop a targeted delivery platform for checkpoint inhibitors. This research was recently published in the Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer, and Cheng plans to present it at several conferences.

He was particularly excited to present at the 2019 Midwest Drug Development Conference in Omaha, because it gives the research valuable exposure to attract crucial industry partners. The next step is to obtain an international patent for the project, a lengthy and laborious endeavor. The right industry partners can make all the difference in this process, Cheng says, and he is hopeful for what the future holds.

“The increased interest in peptides is a trend that I expect to grow,” Cheng says. “For certain applications, peptides do have more advantages, and I am excited about the next steps in this research.”