Cancer fighter from Cameroon

Christian Njatcha in his lab.

It was a day Christian Njatcha will never forget.

A graduate student in pharmacology, Njatcha was examining mice with lung cancer with one question in mind: Could the proto-drug he had given them defeat the disease?

Answer: It could. The tumors had shrunk, and the mice were doing well.

“That was a real YES! moment—to see animals that could actually recover from lung cancer,” says Njatcha. “Once you have models in the lab that show response to treatment, then you start to think maybe one day this will be tested in a clinical trial.”

A native of Cameroon, Njatcha graduated from STEM-strong Harrisburg University. He was recruited to the U in 2013, the same year his adviser—professor and department chair Jill Siegfried—was hired. He joined her lab in 2014.

Driving force

That move upped the level of intellectual energy in the Siegfried lab.

“He asks the other students in my lab more demanding questions than I do,” says Siegfried, “and he’s always making connections with different lines of research.”

Njatcha works with STAT3, a protein that turns on dozens of genes by attaching itself to a particular DNA sequence (stretch of DNA building blocks) they all have in common. Turning on the genes leads to suppression of the immune system, the body’s number-one defense against cancer.

But Njatcha’s proto-drug contains a “decoy” DNA sequence that lures STAT3 away from the genes. Once it attaches to the decoy, STAT3 is destroyed and cancer growth is inhibited.

Personalized medicine

Can lung cancer patients respond to the decoy therapy, too? Njatcha searches blood samples from lab animals that responded, looking for substances that may signal the ability to respond. He then searches for those substances in cultured human cells, hoping to find some that can be tested in a clinical trial.

“I got into this field because I love doing science,” he says. “It’s about creating new things. You start with an idea and turn it into an application.”