Dr. Roy Duncan

Dr. Roy Duncan

Dr. Roy Duncan

Inflammation, Infection & Immunity, Cancer

FAST-er drug delivery:

Through 20 years of studying viral proteins, Dr. Roy Duncan discovered a whole new class of proteins with a unique capability to fuse cellular membranes. He called the new proteins ‘FAST proteins,’ or ‘fusion-associated small transmembrane proteins.’ Since discovering them in the 1990s, he has used them to develop powerful new strategies against cancer and viruses.

Cell membranes are a barrier to drug delivery, but FAST proteins help us breach that barrier allowing these tiny soap-bubble-like particles to fuse to cell membranes and then enter the cell. Liposomes then become vehicles that can deliver a cargo of drugs, encapsulated in the liposomes, directly into the cell.

“We're finding ways to target the FAST-liposomes so they selectively fuse with cancer cells," says Dr. Duncan, a professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology. "This delivers lethal doses of drugs to cancer cells, without harming healthy cells." A member of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology in Halifax, Dr. Duncan is also collaborating with other vaccine researchers to determine whether FAST proteins can also help deliver vaccines into cells to provoke a more complete immune response. He is now working with colleagues at Dalhousie, McMaster University and the University of Ottawa, and with the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a Nova Scotia biotech company, to apply his ‘FAST-liposome’ technology to the discovery and delivery of new anti-cancer agents.

Dr. Roy Duncan and his research team are also searching for biological markers that will help men make the best treatment decisions when faced with a diagnosis of prostate cancer. These choices range from "watchful waiting" to see how the cancer behaves over time, to surgical removal of the entire prostate, possibly combined with radiation and/or chemotherapy. That's why Dr. Duncan and his team are looking inside living prostate cancer cells to see what proteins are involved in making the cancers more invasive. These proteins, he says, could be used clinically as markers of more aggressive types of the disease and as targets for new chemotherapy agents.

"There is remarkable variation in how prostate cancer behaves," Dr. Duncan explains. "While some grow so slowly that a man may die of old age before the cancer becomes a problem, others grow and spread so rapidly they become life-threatening in the near term. We want to discover the mechanisms behind these differences, which may help us identify markers that will give patients and their physicians a clear sense of how aggressive the cancer will be and, therefore, how best to treat it."

Dr. Duncan received the 2008 Max Forman Research Award from the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation for his outstanding achievements.

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