By Leslie Boney
GREENVILLE (September 7, 2023) – Dr. Rukiyah Van Dross-Anderson has made a discovery that could stop skin cancer in its tracks.
The molecule she is developing in her lab at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University appears to be able to stop some melanoma cells from growing and to improve the body’s ability to stop cancers from forming. A few years from now, if clinical trials go well, a new drug may be available that saves lives.
But regardless of how the drug development goes, its development at ECU is a good example of how the impact of medical research ripples across the state.
On a university level, undergraduate chemistry students working with Van Dross-Anderson get critical, real-world experience synthesizing different versions of the molecule to determine which might be most effective. Van Dross-Anderson’s lab staff is growing. She started a company to develop and market the treatment, one of 12 enterprises ECU researchers have founded.1 The university gets positive recognition for the patent the treatment has earned and the news coverage it generates.
New grant funds are coming to support development and tests of the compound – from the National Institutes of Health, the NC Biotechnology Center, the NC Board of Science and Technology, the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and others. There is potential for additional public-private investment from the new NC Innovation fund and downstream investment from drug companies.
Some of those funds will go to pay some of North Carolina’s rich array of clinical research organizations (CROs) to conduct testing. Eventual production could well bolster one of the state’s many drug-manufacturing facilities.
And the first people to receive the treatment will almost certainly be cancer patients from Eastern North Carolina.
“Unfortunately, because people spend so much time in the sun, Eastern North Carolina has a large melanoma population,” says Van Dross-Anderson. “That means we are a perfect place to test how well this treatment works.”
Van Dross-Anderson has worked at ECU for 18 years. Born in the Bronx, she moved to Greenville from the University of Kansas Medical Center with her husband, a professor of criminology at ECU. At the medical school, she serves as an associate professor and director of graduate programs in the department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the medical school and as an adjunct professor in the Chemistry department.
But moving this new treatment from discovery to potential cancer treatment has required her to learn more about the business world.
The university’s Office of Licensing and Commercialization helped her to get the patent; the Office of Innovation and New Ventures helped her write grants; the campus Small Business Technology Development Center helped her learn how to set up a company to attract investment; the business school helped her understand she should probably not serve as CEO.
“I’ve had the chance to partner with people who really know how the business side works,” she says. “That gives me time to focus on the science. In the long run, that’s going to give the company a better chance to be successful in making a drug that works.”
And that’s what matters to Van Dross-Anderson. She’s named her company Claradele Pharmaceuticals, in tribute to her parents Clarence and Adele, who both died of aggressive forms of cancer.
“This is deeply personal to me,” she says. “I watched what they had to go through; nobody should have to do that. We need to find a solution.”
1 2023 ECU REDE Annual Report Infographic.