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Kun Cheng, PhD

UMKC Professor Utilizes Novel Technology for More Effective Immunotherapy


Bigger is not always better. When fighting cancer, Kun Cheng, PhD, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Pharmacy at the University of Missouri - Kansas City (UMKC), the aim is a smaller delivery mechanism, more therapeutic value, and fewer adverse side effects. Peptide technology allows for a shorter treatment cycle and more effective immunotherapy. 

For Cheng, the appeal of immunotherapy is clear, but the opportunity for a more acute delivery is exciting. “Our research focuses on discovering novel therapeutics for cancer and fibrosis,” Cheng said. “We are using peptides not only as the drug but also as a modification to chemotherapy to improve its solubility and specificity.”  

Immunotherapy has traditionally been delivered through monoclonal antibody checkpoint inhibitors. These treatments have advantages and disadvantages. Large protein molecules can stay in the body, treating cancer for a long time. However, if the treatment is ineffective but has adverse side effects, it cannot leave the body quickly. Peptides have the same binding capabilities as the monoclonal antibody treatments but are 1000 times smaller. This allows better tumor penetration, which in turn means more of the drug molecule can be delivered, and the treatment can be more successful. 

A secondary benefit of peptide treatment is that if there are any toxic reactions or negative outcomes from treatment, the drug can be out of a patient’s system in 12 to 24 hours once stopped. “It is safe and efficient. Peptides are made from amino acids, so it is easy for a human body to handle,” Cheng said

Cheng values the opportunity to work in the Kansas City region because of the tremendous collaborative nature of KU Medical Center, Children's Mercy, the University of Missouri System, and its access to the Phage Display. “This technology was discovered by Dr. George Smith from MU. He won a Nobel Prize in 2018 for his work. This tool can identify different peptides against the different protein markers,” Cheng said.  

Two applications of peptide technology provide an enhancement to cancer immunotherapy treatments. “The tumor cells have special markers, and once you identify the marker, you can design the peptide to bind to that tumor marker. Then you attach the peptide to your drug specified near the drug molecules in tumor cells,” Cheng said. “The second application is to use a peptide directly as a drug. You can design the peptide to bind directly to the tumor markers. Once attached, it can block the interaction between the T-Cells and then turn them into an attack on the tumor cells,” Cheng said.  

Cheng feels the drive to improve cancer treatment on a personal level. “My father died of pancreatic cancer, so we endured difficult times. I know what it’s like for those families,” Cheng said. “This has focused me on using my expertise to develop these therapeutics for the next family.”  

Cheng and his team aim to improve all aspects of cancer treatment. Smaller is better in immunotherapy, and treatments being developed here in Kansas City may unlock a new win against cancer treatment and survival rates. 


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