In the late 2000s, UNC Charlotte’s Pinku Mukherjee, Ph.D., was an immunologist with one thing on her mind: finding an antibody to kill cancer cells. How did she go about it? She made her own antibody, using the immune systems of mice.
Antibody therapies, referred to as “smart bombs,” are capable of destroying cancer cells while not harming healthy cells.
Hailing from Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Mukherjee arrived at UNC Charlotte in 2008 as the Irwin Belk Endowed Professor of Cancer Research. She came with a team of two post-doctoral fellows, a lab manager and hundreds of laboratory mice.
Mukherjee and her team began searching for antibodies by taking tumor cells from sick mice and injecting them into healthy mice. Then they analyzed the antibodies produced by the healthy mice’s immune systems to fight tumor cells.
For several years, the researchers studied and harvested the most effective of these antibodies, testing them repeatedly. The goal was to discover if any would consistently attack the cancer cells yet not harm healthy cells.
And that’s exactly what they found. However, the next hurdle was testing the antibody on human blood and attaining the same results. Mukherjee and her team added the antibody and waited.
In 2009, Mukherjee experienced a breakthrough. The research team identified an antibody that could distinguish between malignant and healthy cells in humans. They considered how this discovery would impact the health community. The possibilities included using the antibody in cancer treatment or helping with earlier diagnosis, when treatment is more successful.
In 2011, aided by UNC Charlotte, Mukherjee patented the antibody and created biotechnology company, OncoTAb, in collaboration with her husband. They’re focusing on a blood test to help diagnose breast cancer more quickly, which is where they see the most potential for advancement. Mammograms can miss cancers in as many as 40 percent of women with dense breast tissue. The early detection could improve treatment and survival rates. Ultimately, they’d like to explore uses with other types of cancer.
In October, the OncoTab laboratory was registered and can begin selling the blood test. It will be available to doctors, and to patients with prescriptions, in February.
Mukherjee’s work has earned her numerous grants and awards, including the O. Max Gardner Award, the highest faculty honor given by the University of North Carolina system. It goes to those who have “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race” during the year. In the award’s 66-year history Mukherjee is the second UNC Charlotte faculty member to receive the honor.