Chemist advances cancer research

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, has awarded UTD $6 million as part of a recruitment grant to hire world-class synthetic chemist Rudi Fasan from the University of Rochester.

CPRIT Chief Scientific Officer Michelle Le Beau said the organization aims to develop the research prowess of Texas institutions and works closely with universities that nominate stellar investigators for a CPRIT award. Inga Musselman, the vice president for academic affairs and provost, nominated Fasan as an investigator to join UTD, and Le Beau noted the university’s strong commitment to growing their drug development program.

Rudi Fasan

“Dr. Fasan is going to be a very critical recruit to join the faculty in the center,” Le Beau said. “He is a world-class synthetic chemist and his research involves developing new biologically-active molecules that can be developed for cancer therapeutics.”

A recipient of the Chair in Synthetic Organic Chemistry at the University of Rochester, Fasan said he developed an interest in cancer research since the field correlated with chemistry and biomedical science, two areas he has worked in extensively during his career.

“Our research is very much focused on the chemistry side and developing methods to make molecules,” Fasan said. “We enjoy being able to construct and build molecules. On the other end, we’re also very interested in finding [some] sort of useful application for these molecules. And clearly cancer is such a major human health problem, so being able to provide our contribution in that research is what really drives our work.”

Fasan said he studied pharmaceutical chemistry as an undergraduate in Italy and later worked on interdisciplinary research between chemistry and biology in graduate school in Switzerland. He later moved to the U.S. and worked on laboratory evolution of proteins and enzymes for his postdoctoral degree along with Francis Arnold, the 2018 chemistry Nobel Laureate from Caltech.

“His work on new-to-nature enzymes has taught us a great deal about how evolution creates novelty,” Arnold said. “It also beautifully demonstrates how the combination of deep chemical knowledge and an appreciation for enzymes can solve challenging problems in chemistry. Rudi is a brilliant researcher, with a great track record of creative work.”

Following his academic career, Fasan had the opportunity to start his own lab at the University of Rochester in 2008. The Fasan Lab focuses on two major areas: developing enzymes and biocatalysts for chemical synthesis and developing methods to synthesize both the derivative of natural product and macro peptides for biomedical applications.

“That’s where I sort of merged what I learned from graduate school and from my postdoctoral training,” Fasan said. “A lot of our projects revolve around essentially the matters to be able to generate molecules that can be used for cancer. And, as a group, we sort of grew over the years until we had this opportunity to join UTD.”

Fasan will join UTD — the first transfer in his career — with his lab members in fall 2023. He said he is excited both to collaborate with UTD faculty and UT Southwestern Medical Center — a leading institute in cancer research — and also to recruit new students at UTD and work with undergraduates.

“What I found sort of very exciting about the move is really the opportunity to continue to grow and expand this research program,” Fasan said. “This is clearly possible through a lot of synergistic collaboration that can happen at UTD. We received this recruiting award from CPRIT that will provide a significant boost to all this research. This will essentially give a unique opportunity to be able to apply and generate libraries of our molecules and be able to apply and test their anti-cancer activity and evaluate their anti-cancer potential in collaboration with the investigators at UT Southwestern.”

Fasan said he is looking forward to establishing a new center for high-throughput reaction, discovery and synthesis with chemistry professor Vladimir Gevorgyan, which will boost research and therapeutic application in cancer.

“We are very excited about this initiative,” Fasan said. “It will help with all of our programs for the faculty, myself, as well as other investigators at UTD and collaborators like UT Southwestern to be able to essentially discover new reactions for synthesis and be able to synthesize interesting molecules.”

For undergraduates and the UTD student body, Fasan advised students to pursue their passion and push themselves, but to not be demoralized by failures.

“Maintaining a positive attitude, pursuing what you’re passionate about and not being afraid to fail, I think, provides a great attitude really to move forward,” Fasan said.

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