With matching funds from Kentucky’s “Bucks for Brains” program, more than $4.5 million will go to the Owensboro Cancer Research Program (OCRP). The funds will be used to create an endowed faculty post for a nationally recognized researcher in plant-based pharmaceuticals, as well as creating two new faculty posts to expand and enhance the research program.

“When we established this program in partnership with Owensboro Medical Health System (OMHS) in 2006, we envisioned other significant organizations joining us in our effort to create and develop novel approaches to preventing and treating cancer,” said UofL President James Ramsey. “This gift from the Helmsley Trust moves our vision forward and is recognition for the importance of the work taking place here.”

Among the projects under way at OCRP are the development of a plant-based vaccine to prevent HIV, understanding how changes in the calcium-signaling pathway of stem cells affects the development and continued growth of lung cancer cells and determining whether the interaction of the heavy metal cadmium with tobacco-derived carcinogens contributes to the development of lung cancer in smokers.

Researchers with the James Graham Brown Cancer Center and OCRP also are working on a second-generation cervical cancer vaccine grown in tobacco plants in order to make it affordable to millions of women worldwide. A vaccine of this type will be most beneficial to women in rural parts of the United States, India and Sub-Saharan Africa. An ultimate goal of the partnership is to develop less expensive drugs for cancer prevention and treatment.

“We are excited to see the fine work of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center and Owensboro Medical Health System expand through this public/private initiative,” said John Codey, a trustee of the Helmsley Charitable Trust. “The promise of plant-based pharmaceuticals and vaccines to dramatically improve health care at reduced cost is both exciting and critically important.”

The tobacco-based process involves inserting genes needed for drug development into the tobacco genome. The leaves are harvested, processed and purified to derive a key ingredient.

“Plant-based pharmaceutical systems have a number of advantages,” said Donald Miller, MD, director of the James Graham Brown Cancer Center. “The costs for starting materials are low, which translates into a lower production cost. The materials are readily available, meaning that we are able to increase production levels relatively quickly. Additionally, plant-based therapies have fewer issues with potential contamination than those utilizing other materials such as animal or human pathogens.”

UofL and OMHS are aided in their work by Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), also in Owensboro. OMHS established KBP in 2006, and already the company is a world leader in the development and execution of processes for commercial scale production of plant-made pharmaceuticals.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, established in 1999, supports a diverse range of organizations with a major focus on health and medical research in addition to programs in human services, education and conservation.