Ramesh Narayanan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Medicine and Director of the Center for Cancer Drug Discovery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC). His primary research interests include small molecule drug discovery, translational oncology research, and the fundamental mechanisms of action for diseases, therapeutic targets, and new chemical entities. Originally from India, Narayanan received his PhD in Molecular Pharmacology from the University of Madras. He then moved to Houston to serve as a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Baylor College of Medicine, focusing his research on nuclear hormone receptors and receptor pharmacology in breast cancer and prostate cancer. In 2004, Narayanan was hired by Memphis-based biopharmaceutical company GTx as a senior scientist and later named Director of Drug Discovery in 2010. He joined UTHSC in January 2014 and currently serves as a consultant to GTx for preclinical and clinical projects. Narayanan has published 50 peer-reviewed manuscripts to date and is an inventor in over 90 patent applications.

Narayanan continues to pursue his interests in nuclear receptors and cancer drug discovery at UTHSC, where much of his research is funded by GTx. One of Narayanan’s principal projects is the development of selective androgen receptor degrader (SARD) technology, co-discovered by Narayanan and Duane Miller, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the UTHSC College of Pharmacy. Androgen receptors are a primary driver of prostate tumor cell proliferation. Current therapies seek to block the androgen receptor to prevent its activation. However, SARD technology degrades androgen receptors, including those resistant to current therapies, to inhibit tumor growth in patients with advanced prostate cancer. GTx, a longstanding UTRF partner, entered into an exclusive license agreement with UTRF in April 2015 to further develop the SARD technology for clinical trials.

Dr. Ramesh Narayanan of UTHSC (Photo by Adam Brimer)

Although the role of androgen receptors in prostate cancer is well-known, their role in breast cancer is still unclear. Narayanan’s lab, one of a small number of labs working on this issue worldwide, is using drugs developed in collaboration with GTx (including SARDs) and repurposing them to examine their effectiveness in treating different types of breast cancer. Through testing, Narayanan hopes to identify a type of breast cancer that will respond to androgen receptor-targeted therapies.

In addition to his cancer research, Narayanan is involved in other projects that could one day lead to treatments for obesity and muscular dystrophy. Narayanan and his lab team have identified a molecule that activates an estrogen receptor and prevents weight gain in mice fed a high-fat diet. This molecule was found to reduce body fat, increase muscle mass, and increase the amount of brown adipose tissue (or energy-burning fat) without increasing physical activity. Narayanan’s work with muscular dystrophy focuses on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which is most commonly found in children and caused by a gene mutation that weakens muscles and makes them less flexible over time. Pre-clinical models conducted by his lab showed that androgen receptor activation provided some relief for mice that were severely impaired because of this gene mutation.

Narayanan is grateful for the support he receives from UTRF, which allows him to devote more time to research and discovery.

“It’s one less challenge I have on my hands as a researcher to have to worry about seeking partners for our drugs or filling out applications to protect our discoveries. UTRF is already knowledgeable in those areas,” says Narayanan.

Narayanan is also grateful for the support he receives from UTHSC and his colleagues, who make it possible for him to pursue his passion for drug discovery. His dedication can be seen every day in his lab – where the lights are always on and someone is hard at work on the latest research that could one day transform patients’ lives.