Going After Glioblastomas

Nobel Laureate Ferid Murad Comes to GW with a Mission to take on the deadly Brain Tumors
Ferid Murad, M.D., Ph.D.
June 14, 2013

When Ferid Murad, M.D., Ph.D., University Professor and professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), joined the GW faculty in April, he unpacked one nagging question: How can deadly tumors be treated with minimal side effects?

The question first begged an answer in the 1970s, when Murad's work with liver and renal tumor models first indicated a relationship between cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP), an intercellular second messenger, and tumor proliferation. But when Murad and his colleagues realized their ambitions exceeded the day's technologies, they tabled the project for another time.

Now is that time, says Murad, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998 for uncovering the first biological effects of nitric oxide (NO). When NO interacts with a receptor on a cell's surface called guanylate cyclase (GC), he found, cGMP is released inside the cell to regulate its functions. NO is now known to be influential in countless biological processes, including smooth muscle relaxation, memory preservation, and, Murad thinks, cancer.

"NO and cGMP reprogram genes that influence the differentiation and proliferation of cells," he explains. "Because some of these effects are related to cancer proliferation, interrupting that process can be a novel way to treat cancers."

At GW, Murad is focusing on glioblastoma, a "very aggressive, nasty" type of brain cancer that he estimates kills up to 80 percent of its victims in fewer than three years. His goal, in broad terms, is to enhance the expression of a certain subtype, or isoform, of the receptor GC and its product cGMP, so that tumor cells can no longer hear the message "grow." So far, Murad and his team of investigators have successfully quadrupled the lifespan of mice injected with the altered tumor cells. "Can we do that with humans? I don't know, but I hope so," he says.

Murad brings his projects — which also include work with regenerative therapy and the development of a treatment for diarrhea in developing countries — from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where he was most recently director emeritus of the Institute of Molecular Medicine. He has also served as chief of Medicine at Palo Alto Veterans Hospital, chair of Medicine at Stanford University, and as an advisor to city and government leaders on technology development. He has founded several biotechnology companies, lectured around the world, and in June, became the namesake of a hospital in Macedonia — the same hospital where his Albanian father sold candy as a teenager.

"I like to chase problems," he says. "You have to do whatever it takes to answer the most important questions."

Though it could take decades to see if this goal is realized, GW is already reaping the benefits of Murad's influence. Says Jeff Akman, M.D. '81, G.M.E. '85, interim vice provost for Health Affairs and dean of SMHS: "Dr. Murad's presence on our faculty immediately catalyzes and elevates our strategic efforts in advancing scientific discovery, educating the next generation of physicians and scientists, and improving the health and lives of the people we treat."