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After a 20-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, Stephen Frye, PhD, joined the UNC faculty in 2007 with the goal of partnering with physician-scientists to develop new cancer therapeutics. We recently sat down with Frye to talk about his love of chemistry, his interest in writing, and his desire to break the 50 mph barrier on his bicycle. He also shared that he and his wife will ride 60 miles on a tandem bicycle to support Team UNC Lineberger in The Victory Ride to Cure Cancer this May.

Stephen and Susan Frye. Credit: Rachel Frye.

Stephen Frye, PhD, has made it his life’s work to create new chemical compounds that could become treatments for cancer and other diseases. His work became more personal after his wife, Susan, was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer.

This May, the couple will ride with the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center team in The Victory to Cure Cancer, a charity bicycle ride launched by The V Foundation for Cancer Research, along with UNC Lineberger, the Duke Cancer Institute, and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center Comprehensive Cancer Center. They see it as a way to be a part of the team, as well as to say “thank you.” Susan received extraordinary care at UNC, Frye said.

“Lineberger is a world-class organization full of talented, motivated, and caring people who want to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients, and all of us will know a cancer patient in our lifetimes,” Frye said.

Frye is a Fred Eshelman Distinguished Professor in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, co-leader of UNC Lineberger’s molecular therapeutics program, and director of the UNC Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery. There, his mission is two-fold: to work with physician-scientists to uncover new cancer therapeutics, and to make basic science discoveries about the regulation of chromatin, which is all of a person’s DNA as well as the proteins that give it structure.

A North Carolina native and the son of a Quaker minister, Frye got his start in science at North Carolina State University, where he studied chemistry. He earned his doctorate in the lab of the late Ernest Eliel, PhD, who was William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Chemistry – a choice that he counts as one of two major decisions that he really got right.

“Between asking my wife to marry me, and joining Ernest’s lab, those are two huge life decisions that I can look back on and say, ‘I got those right,’” he said.

He joined the UNC faculty after a 20-year career with GlaxoSmithKline. Frye has many notable scientific achievements, but he hopes his biggest impact is yet to come. He, along with UNC Lineberger Director H. Shelton Earp, MD, and Emory University School of Medicine’s Douglas K. Graham, MD, PhD, are working to advance a novel compound, MRX-2843, that has shown promise in laboratory studies as a means to activate patients’ immune systems against their cancer.

Outside of the lab, Frye has a great love of the arts and the outdoors. The walls of his office are covered in bright, bold photos he’s taken of the North Carolina coast, and of the Southwest, where he has backpacked with his Susan and their three children. To spend more quality time together, Frye and his wife have a tandem bicycle that they plan to take on cycling adventures abroad. They will ride the tandem in the Victory Ride to Cure Cancer. (For more information on how to support Stephen’s ride, click here, and for information on how to support Susan’s ride, click here.)

Frye recently spent some time with us discussing his love of chemistry, his interest in writing, and his desire to break the 50 mph barrier on his bicycle.

Can you share one standout moment where you felt you were making a difference or was particularly rewarding?

Can it be in the future? I think when we get first-in-human dosing with MRX-2843, the compound we discovered here at UNC, that will be a milestone for me, and for the center, and for Lineberger. It will be one of the first compounds discovered at UNC, based on biological insights at UNC, and tested in the N.C. Cancer Hospital. That’s going to be a big milestone.

Why is that particularly rewarding?

Synthetic chemists have a great role. We create new forms of matter — things that may not exist anywhere in the universe. We stitch them together, which is a lot of fun, and intellectually challenging. The idea that a compound that you designed and created ends up in people, and helps them, is the most rewarding thing. Obviously it is done in collaboration. Chemistry alone is one hand clapping. It’s in collaboration with pharmacologist, biochemists, and as I said, physician-scientists, but chemists are the ones who create the new agents.

If you weren’t doing this career, what career would you see yourself doing?

Poetry, or photography. Possibly. Although I doubt that’s a career. I’d be going broke. I minored in English when I was an undergraduate. I’ve always been interested in the nuances of language. My mother was an English teacher. I don’t think I’d ever make a living doing it though.

What drew you to cycling?

I’ve always been engaged in fitness activities, but it was something I liked to do alone. So cycling gave me time… to spend a few hours on the bike, where I can digest and process the things that are going on in my life. I don’t view it as a social thing. Some period of quiet contemplation is really important to me. Cycling gives you a way to exercise and do that. That’s probably the main thing. And the speed – I do like trying to go fast, and breaking 50 miles per hour going down a hill in my neighborhood has been a goal. I haven’t done it – I’ve only gone 49. There’s a crossroad at the bottom of this hill and I feel a little bit like, if somebody pulled out in front of me I’d kill myself. So I told my wife that she should park her van and block the crossroad, and then I could break 50 miles an hour. And you know what she had the audacity to say? “You don’t need to go 50 miles an hour on your bike.”

Why did you get a tandem bicycle?

I rode alone, but I also felt guilty about leaving my wife alone on the weekend. The perfect solution was to get a tandem. It was a leap of faith. You don’t know how you’re going to do together on a tandem until you ride it. We got a tandem in October, and I think we’re over 1,000 miles on it now, riding every weekend, weather-permitting. We did a ride where the average temperature was 26. It hurt. She had to get used to it – because of our difference in size she is stuck in the back. She’s 5’1” and I’m 6’2”. There is no swapping positions because the bike is built for our sizes. So she had to get used to trusting me as the person in front, steering and changing gears. I’m a lot more careful with my wife on the bike than I am with just me. I cannot crash the bike with her on it.