Campus: CSU Northridge -- August 6, 2004

CSUN Chemistry Professor On a Quest To Defeat Breast Cancer

Cal State Northridge chemistry professor Gagik Melikyan was in the middle of an illustrious two-decade career in organic and organometallic chemistry when, two years ago, his life changed. At a Santa Barbara conference on breast cancer, it became clear to him that his expertise could be applied to the detection and possible cure of the disease.

After spending time with breast cancer survivors and devastated victims, Melikyan wrenched himself away from pure academics and entered the field of medicinal chemistry.

"When you meet these people, you understand it is better to publish one or two papers less in order to save human lives," he said.

Melikyan embarked on a twofold mission. One goal is to create an early detection method for breast cancer that will not require expensive medical equipment.

The other is to develop a new generation of organic compounds able to slow down tumor growth and to kill cancer cells "without significant damage to a human body." Melikyan's compounds will travel inside the body and convert into an active cancer-killing mode "at the right time, in the right place."

His mission is shared at Northridge by computational chemist Pogban Toure and a small corps of "devoted, motivated and highly capable" students who conduct experimental work under Melikyan's direction.

"In our laboratory," the chemist said, "there is a constant sense of urgency since the students understand that by developing much better, more efficient and less toxic therapeutic means, we can potentially save thousands of human lives."

His team has developed samples that are highly effective against breast and lung cancer cells, but there is a bottleneck: their further development requires additional funding and exhaustive biological testing.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the cost for these tests--mostly run by private companies--is quite prohibitive." To test one compound over a period of two weeks can cost from $15,000 to $20,000, and Melikyan has from seven to ten compounds "waiting in the refrigerator right now."

With an infusion of funds, he estimates that the early detection compounds could be achieved "within a year or two maximum." Completion of work on the cell-killing compounds, however, requires time-consuming Food and Drug Administration approvals, clinical trials and toxicological testing. Without private monies, those hurdles will be difficult to jump.

The author of 66 papers and reviews--his work recently landed him in the pages of the globally influential Chemical and Engineering News--Melikyan believes it will happen. "We have to do whatever is humanly possible to save these people."

Cal State Northridge's College of Science and Mathematics is home to several nationally recognized programs where students gain valuable experience through hands-on work using the latest technologies and equipment. Students also have an opportunity to co-author publications with faculty members, present their research results at national and international meetings, and prepare for teaching careers.

Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130,

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