WEST LAFAYETTE — Thanks to an unexpected bequest of $8.5 million from fellow faculty member John Capaldi, Philip Low, Purdue University’s Presidential Scholar for Drug Discovery, and the Ralph C. Corley Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, has funding to support more than 40 years’ worth of cancer research.
“I was absolutely knocked off my feet when I found out what was in his estate,” Low said. “These funds have come at a perfect time for my lab, in that we have been blessed with many good ideas on how to treat cancer but have been short on the funding to develop them. Over my 40-year career, I’ve taken the time to record my very best ideas, and with this remarkable gift from Dr. Capaldi, I won’t have to delay exploring them anymore.”
When Capaldi, professor emeritus of psychological sciences at Purdue, lost his only sister to cancer, he told his attorney that when he died, he wanted his remaining assets to support cancer research. His attorney, who had known of Low since high school, recommended supporting Low’s research.
When Capaldi died in November 2020, he left much of his estate, including a Purdue-funded retirement account, to Low’s lab at Purdue.
Much of the funding for Low’s lab comes from federal grants, which require precise proposals for how the funding will be used. While these funds are vital, private gifts — like that from Capaldi — mean Low can pursue discoveries as they arise, allowing nimble and time-sensitive discoveries that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. In this area, he’ll apply a question that he considers key: “How can I use this information to do something that really matters?”
“I found that simply asking that question can open up opportunities that I would have never envisioned had I not stopped to think about the potential value to humanity of the work that I was doing,” said Low. “I do believe I have an obligation to minimize the suffering of cancer patients if I can.”
Low has recently earned FDA approval on novel ovarian cancer treatment. While Low has more than 150 U.S. patents (and many more foreign patents), this is the first of his drugs to make it through the FDA-approval process. The results from this drug have drawn significant attention to Low’s unique treatment methods.
Most cancer drugs are created to attack dividing cells, which can also wreak havoc on patients’ immune systems, GI tracks, and more. Low takes a different approach, creating “homing molecules” that attack only cancer cells, paired with existing drugs that kill cancer cells. He has applied the method to force cancer cells to glow like a fluorescent light during surgeries so that the surgeon can find and remove more malignant tissue and to help killer T cells destroy only cancerous cells. These therapies may mean a longer and better quality of life for thousands of cancer patients.
“Professor Capaldi’s gift will have a lasting impact on cancer research at Purdue,” said Patrick Wolfe, the Frederick L. Hovde Dean of the College of Science. “We are very proud to support Professor Low’s signature patient-focused treatments, and these funds will enable him and his laboratory to focus not only on several different cancers, but also on fibrotic, autoimmune, and CNS diseases, as well as bone fractures and even inherited diseases. All of us are eager to see what kind of exciting new treatments will emerge over time as a result of this transformational gift.”
There are several very resistant cancers that need these kinds of breakthroughs. Low will be able to spend significant time determining how to craft homing molecules for each type — cutting down years of financial hurdles that previously existed.
“The encouraging atmosphere for translating important scientific discoveries into commercial products is vibrant at Purdue,” said Christine Hrycyna, Purdue’s 150th Anniversary Professor of Chemistry and chemistry department head. “This investment in our faculty researchers results in bringing promising therapies for patients to fruition, including another from Dr. Low for prostate cancer that recently received FDA approval.”