Lindsey James, PhD, is a born collaborator. As a UNC Lineberger member and assistant professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, James is well-suited to the collaborative relationship between the two scientific organizations, taking her interests in medicinal chemistry and epigenetics and working with cancer center physicians and researchers to make strides into cancer care and treatment.
James’ interest in chemistry was first sparked by her high school AP Chemistry teacher. She pursued a chemistry major at Colgate University and became drawn to research while getting her bachelor’s degree. “I really liked solving problems,” James said.
Becoming a Tar Heel
Her arrival at UNC-Chapel Hill was a happy accident, the result of a last-minute application to a school far from her home outside Philadelphia. While she had no ties to UNC or North Carolina before she started her graduate studies in Chapel Hill, the connections she made at Carolina helped her make the decision to stay. In addition to making academic and professional connections, she made some important personal ones, including meeting her future husband during her graduate work.
“I applied for a PhD at Carolina, decided to come, and I never left,” she said. “I don’t have a background in medicine, but I’ve always had an interest in the area. That led me to pursue chemical biology and medicinal chemistry, with the hope that I could participate in translational science.”
James said working as a postdoc researcher with UNC Lineberger member Stephen Frye, PhD, spurred her interest in cancer.
“After my PhD, I wanted to pursue science that was more translational,” she said. “I could envision how it would help people and have an impact. I didn’t want to make molecules to just make them, I wanted them to have a purpose.”
When considering her career options, James found the perfect professional home at the School of Pharmacy, which has a rich history of drug discovery and thinking about how to create new medicines.
A key role in cancer research
In her lab, she creates molecules that target specific proteins that are believed to play roles in the development of cancers, such as triple negative breast cancer, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma. James also has a background in epigenetics, which was a good fit for her work with cancer.
“We are interested in proteins which are overexpressed or mutated in any type of cancer,” James said. “We think about developing molecules that are able to bind these proteins and investigate if they can block protein function and lead to an outcome that might be beneficial to patients. In many cases, we are working on proteins that are not well studied, and we use our compounds to better understand their role in disease and validate new therapeutic targets.”
With her expertise in molecule building, James’ role in the cancer research process is invaluable. She and her lab team know that when they develop a new molecule for a protein implicated in a specific cancer, there is a UNC Lineberger expert who can take the lab’s findings to the next level, building upon their research and ideally demonstrating efficacy in disease specific models.
James’ work has attracted industry interest, as well. With funding from Pinnacle Hill, the medical innovation investment partnership between UNC and Deerfield Management Company, a compound James and her lab developed is now being optimized with the end goal of identifying a possible new treatment against multiple myeloma.
“We get really excited when we are able to put our molecules in an in vivo cancer model and demonstrate efficacy,” she said. “The best-case scenario is that they eventually end up in people and can help treat patients. If I can do that once in my career, I will be satisfied.”
Collaborating at UNC-Chapel Hill
And collaboration is part of what makes UNC Lineberger a great place for James to continue working toward that goal.
She said being able to reach across the aisle from the School of Pharmacy to the cancer center is important, and she is grateful to cancer center leadership for recognizing the importance of that relationship.
“I try to surround myself with people with far more experience and expertise, who I can learn from and can help us accomplish our goals. Drug discovery research requires a large team, and we need to collaborate in order to be successful,” she said.
Life outside of the lab
And though she is busy running her lab, James also makes time for pursuits outside her work. She is a mom to three children, ages 8, 5 and 1, and they can often be found watching Carolina football or basketball during their respective seasons.
“My girls already bleed Carolina blue so we spend time at football and basketball games, and we even drove to Philadelphia for the NCAA Tournament this year,” she said. “Carolina sports has become a big family hobby for us.”
The family is also planning to travel for some cold weather activities, too, and James said they’ll be taking a ski trip to Colorado early next year to enjoy some family time out west.