We are trying to understand biology in new and different ways to find new targets for drug discovery. ”
Luis Zúñiga studies cancer biology and the immune system and how we can use them to fight cancer.
He likes to think he's "exploring unchartered territory."
What Luis and his fellow researchers are exploring are biologic targets, which are molecular-level mechanisms or receptors that play a role in how cancer cells grow and spread in the body. As targets are identified, the team then must work to uncover how they work; how they interact at the cellular and molecular level. From this understanding, the teams then work to invent medicines that 'hit' or interact with the targets with the goal of interrupting the growth and spread of cancer cells. "We are trying to understand biology in new and different ways to find new targets for drug discovery, so innovation and creativity are essential."
"I am working on a target that we still don't understand everything about — and I think that's going to be the case as we go forward with new targets — they're going to be trickier,” Luis comments. “But at the same time, that unknown fuels the passion of trying to uncover and understand new targets."
Many tumors remain difficult to target because their biology (aka: how they operate within the complex human system), is not well understood.
This is the challenge for Luis and his coworkers.
"For the targets that still remain elusive, the amount of work that goes into trying to understand those targets — how they contribute to cancer tolerance, how they contribute to regulating the immune system to keep it from fighting that cancer — the amount of work that goes into trying to understand that biology takes years," he notes. "If you add up all the people that work on a particular program, we're talking about potentially decades of work to uncover a single target."
Fortunately for Luis, he's not working alone. “The best ideas are an amalgam of thoughts that come together to solve a particular question. I work with groups of people who explore cancer biology from different angles, exposing us to new avenues of thought. Combining multiple scientific approaches allows us to be much more creative in how we find answers to the many questions we have in our search for new targets."
Luis has worked in Palo Alto for six years and is about to move to our new South San Francisco labs. "The move to San Francisco will open new opportunities for us to work with great minds in many scientific fields that are advancing rapidly right now, including immunology, computational biology, genetics, to name just a few. It really will put us in the center of the action," he notes. “The move will make us more accessible to many experts who can help us address the questions, 'How do we understand cancer better? How can we better target certain cancers? What patient populations will benefit the most?'"
For any exploration to be successful, teamwork and expertise are essential, so Luis and his colleagues often seek input from outside our labs. "The only way for us to facilitate this basic research and sometimes look at it in a different light is to go outside of our immediate teams,'" he notes. "Increasing our accessibility to collaborators in industry and academia, I believe will improve our capacity to expand on these questions that we have and hopefully lead to new insights. We may be able to discover new things that we wouldn't have otherwise been able to do on our own."