Sean Murphy, a rising fifth-year graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, has received a prestigious Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Only around 24 predoctoral to postdoctoral fellow transition awards (F99/K00) are awarded each year by the NCI, a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The award provides up to six years of monetary support for research: one to two years to complete doctoral research and complete a dissertation, and three to four years of mentored postdoctoral training.
For Murphy, the award is a dream come true, and will allow him to complete postdoctoral training almost anywhere in the country. After losing friends and family members to cancer early in his life, he told his parents and teachers about his desire to cure cancer as far back as middle school—and he’s trying to make it stick.
“My dad was essentially like, if you can do it, go for it. I said the same to my mom after watching the movie “Rudy” and she kind of smirked and said, ‘it will be a lot of hard work’,” said Murphy, who is from an small, unincorporated town about 45 minutes southeast of Indianapolis. “And in high school, my counselor told me the same thing. I can’t help but to feel a bit like Rudy.”
His research project idea, about ketogenic (keto) diets and their potential as a cancer therapy, stemmed from health issues he began experiencing as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Twelve-hour days and little sleep, along with a discontinuation of some mental health medication he had been taking, caused him to develop seizures for the first time in his life. Through research he learned that a keto diet, low in sugars and carbs and high in fats, can benefit people with seizure disorders.
He tried the diet, in addition to working with a physician, and for a time, he was seizure-free.
“I knew that cancer cells need sugar, so I wanted to find out what would happen if cancer cells were deprived of sugars (when people dedicate themselves to a keto diet),” Murphy said. “Could it cure the cancer, or even prevent it?”
Murphy took a gap year after earning his master’s degree in bioengineering from Johns Hopkins before joining the lab of Xin Lu, the John M. and Mary Jo Boler Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame. Lu, who is affiliated with the Harper Cancer Research Institute, Boler-Parseghian Center for Rare and Neglected Diseases, and Warren Center for Drug Discovery, studies the tumor microenvironment and metastasis, and supported Murphy’s keto research.
In the lab, Murphy studies the effect of keto on prostate cancer and kidney cancer. Prostate cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer for American men, whereas kidney cancer is the sixth most common cancer for men and ninth most common cancer for women. Kidney cancer is also the most lethal manifestation for the rare disease Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome (VHL), a hereditary condition that causes tumors to form in multiple organs. Understanding the mechanisms of how a keto diet can affect the expression of genes in the metabolic processes of cancers, and testing the research in clinical trials, is the primary aim of Murphy’s research.
“I think that Sean's project was chosen because he really targeted one of the most desired methods to treat cancer nowadays, which is to use specially-formulated diets, instead of toxic drugs, to kill tumor cells (directly or indirectly),” Lu said. “This is an emerging area in cancer research and has gathered tremendous attention from the cancer research community.”
Murphy plans to complete his doctoral work in Lu’s lab before selecting an institute to complete his postdoctoral research. He hopes to work in a large medical center so he can set up clinical trials.
Meanwhile, he continues to follow a keto diet. The diet has continued to help, even though his seizures returned once he began pursuing his doctorate, but he has added medication to his regimen to control them.
Murphy, who is still affected with the consequences of cancer in his life, said that he has become more motivated with each passing friend and family member. The death that has motivated him the most was the death of a lifelong mentor, his grandfather.
Landing the NCI fellowship means Murphy is a step closer to finding a therapy for cancer.
“Sean's data, together with some emerging data from the field, suggest that a ketogenic diet given in a suitable way may both elicit metabolic stress to cancer cells and wake up the immune cells to attack cancer cells,” Lu said. “Therefore, I have high hopes that Sean's idea of targeting cancer with a ketogenic diet will work and help patients in the future.”