Local Scientist Aims to Cure Cancer

Local Scientist Aims to Cure Cancer

December 2017


Writer // Anjali Gupta            Photography // Submitted

 Dr. Mark Kelley, a Zionsville resident, is researching to better the lives of patients with cancer. He believes that cancer is an appalling disease with little treatments, so helping anybody would be rewarding and exciting.

Dr. Kelley has studied cancer for 27 years and has always been dedicated to science. His fifth-grade science teacher inspired him to learn about science, and the passion stuck with him through college. His devotion to science has always been strong; there was no other profession in the world that he would accept. “I love being a scientist, and I’ve done it so long now,” he stated.

Dr. Kelley’s belief that science is like a puzzle has always intrigued him. Putting facts together and trying to decipher the unknown is a vital part of his interest. To him, science is also about making new discoveries to change the world. He tells his students that when someone conducts an experiment and finds new results, it is the first time in the history of mankind that those results have been seen. “So where else do you really get to be a discoverer and explore every day? [Science] is very exciting,” he said.

Dr. Kelley also has a supportive family to help him. He met his wife, Sue Kelley, in college at DePauw University. She encouraged Dr. Kelley to continue researching science instead of going to medical school. She inspired him to stay with his passion for science and discovery. Mrs. Kelley stayed home to take care of their twins, allowing Dr. Kelley to work late and further his research.

While Dr. Kelley has loved science for his entire life, his training and job were full of work and took patience. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1979 from DePauw University and his Master of Science degree in 1981 from Louisiana State University. He has a Ph.D. in genetics, which took five years to receive by completing lab experiments and taking courses during the day, at night and on the weekends. He received this in 1984 at Louisiana State University. Afterwards, he completed his postdoctoral training, which took three years to complete. Dr. Kelley trained at Rockefeller University with a mentor who recently won a Nobel Prize in medicine.

In his first year as a post-doctorate, Dr. Kelley worked every day, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, he enjoyed it. “It has always been fun. I think that is the key,” he explained. Also, Dr. Kelley’s job can be difficult because the numerous types of cancers are unalike. The cells in certain cancers differ from the cells in others. This causes the curing of cancer to be challenging. However, the difficulty does not prevent him from pursuing his goal; he believes in John F. Kennedy’s quote, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Dr. Kelley researches cells in the body, hoping to produce a drug that can heal cancer tumors. He works constantly at home, in the lab at IU Simon Cancer Center, and with his company, Apexian Pharmaceuticals, writing grants to fund his research. He mainly researches the APE1/Ref1 (Apurinic Endonuclease Redox Effector Factor 1), a DNA repair enzyme. The enzyme reduces oxidation in cancer cells and proteins, cleaning the DNA. It works as a master regulator, or a “signaling node,” as it binds with other proteins to make them unoxidized. Dr. Kelley and his co-workers imagine that this enzyme is the “center of the universe” since it is extremely crucial. They knew that a cell can die if the APE1/Ref1 is removed, so they decided to find a way to remove the enzyme from cancer cells and block the tumors, causing the cancer cells to die.

Using a $2.9 million grant, the scientists at Apexian Pharmaceuticals decided to create a drug to target the APE1/Ref1 enzyme in pancreatic cancer cells. This drug is temporarily called APX3330. The drug was already created and has approval from the FDA to be tested on humans. The APX3330 drug also eases neuropathy side effects from chemotherapy. Chemotherapy damages neurons in the body, causing them to malfunction. Rarely, the neurons can die. This causes burning and tingling in the fingertips and toes. The burning is extremely painful; many patients quit chemotherapy. The APX3330 drug protects the neurons from damage. The drug would be consumed with chemotherapy to treat pancreatic cancer, decreasing neuropathy.

Dr. Kelley hopes to learn more about APE1/Ref1 in the future and to help patients. He also hopes to start clinical trials to test the APX3330 in the next months. He believes that helping anyone can be thrilling, especially seeing something go from the lab bench to the real world. “It is really the dream of all scientists, making a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Dr. Kelley’s advice for kids who want to become scientists is to be passionate and follow what is loved. “Stick with it. It is a long road, but where else do you get to make new discoveries all the time?”