Researcher Profile: Alexander Steven Whitehead

Dr. Alexander Steven Whitehead

Alexander Steven Whitehead, DPhil, Professor of Pharmacology, and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have been awarded a research grant from LUNGevity Foundation to identify biomarkers for the development of targeted lung cancer therapy.

Dr. Whitehead is collaborating on this project with the Director of the Center for Cancer Pharmacology, Ian Blair, PhD, and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Anil Vachani, MD.

Folate is an important B vitamin found in leafy green vegetables, dietary supplements and products made with fortified flour. Enzymes in the body convert folate into multiple forms; each form is important for different biochemical processes. But not everyone’s enzymes are the same. Some patients have subtle variations in these enzymes, which are caused by variations in their genes. These genetic variations can cause abnormal folate metabolism. Some of these variations have also been linked to lung cancer. In fact, recent studies show a correlation between the variations in these folate enzymes and good responses to pemetrexed, an anti-folate drug that is commonly used to treat lung cancer.

Building upon these studies, Dr. Whitehead and his collaborators are working to identify the most common genetic variations of these folate-related enzymes and to study them further in order to determine if these genetic variations can serve as biomarkers for lung cancer patients who would benefit from pemetrexed treatment.

“We hope to predict the responsiveness of patients with non-small cell lung cancer who are being treated with pemetrexed,” says Dr. Whitehead. “If we are correct, this work could provide the basis for future personalized medicine strategies in lung cancer treatment.”

In addition to studying the main folate-related genetic variants, the team of scientists is also using cutting-edge technology to determine the relative amounts of the different forms of folate in patients before and during lung cancer treatment. By analyzing these results, the researchers can determine if patients who respond well to pemetrexed treatment are associated with specific levels of folate.

Once this project is completed, it has the potential to identify two types of biomarkers, genetic variations and folate levels, which could be used to effectively target lung cancer chemotherapy to the patients who would benefit the most.