When UNC Lineberger’s Chad Pecot, MD, was studying biomedical engineering as an undergraduate student at the University of Miami in Florida, his aspiration was to one day create medical devices that could change the lives of patients. But at the age of 20, it was his life that was changed when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
While undergoing treatment at the same university where he was studying, his newfound perspective as a patient led him to start thinking of a different future than the one he had planned.
“As a patient, I got to live at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, similar to our SECU House at UNC, and I got to hang out with a lot of people who also had cancer. It was there that I decided that I wanted to help treat people just like them,” he said.
Pecot’s experience motivated him to go to medical school and pursue a career in medicine.
Pecot met his first mentor, the late Pierre Massion, MD, a lung cancer researcher and pulmonologist, while doing his internal medicine residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which piqued his interest in pursuing lung cancer as a specialty. But it was a fellowship at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston that made him take up the research mantle, where he met another mentor, Anil Sood, MD, who recommended he consider UNC Lineberger to grow his career as a physician-scientist.
“I was looking for faculty jobs and ended up hearing back from UNC, and Sood strongly recommended that I look there,” he said. “When I came for a visit, it was a place that felt like home. There is a culture of people being friendly and collaborative and excelling at their research. It’s a very collegial environment, and they sold me on that. I’ve believed it ever since, and now I’m nine years in.”
Patient care and researching cancer therapies
Pecot specializes in caring for patients with lung cancer and conducts research into how various types of RNAs promote the spread of cancer. His lab at UNC Lineberger also studies how RNA can be engineered into cancer therapies. His focus on RNA has led to an appointment as the director of the newly established UNC RNA Discovery Center, an inclusive community of scientists dedicated to investigating all aspects of RNA biology, and he is also the CEO of his own biotechnology company, EnFuego Therapeutics.
“I’m most excited about using engineered RNA molecules as a therapy, which ironically can be used to target ‘bad’ RNAs within the tumor. We recently developed new ways to target these RNA medicines into tumors to interrupt the tumor’s growth,” he said.
Funding helps sustain the forward-thinking research that happens in the Pecot Lab. Pecot’s work has garnered seed grant funding for his work on EGFR-directed Chimeric siRNAs for Dual KRAS+Myc Targeting, a project that combined protein and oligonucleotide engineering, work he completed in collaboration with UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Albert Bowers, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member.
The research involved newly designed chimeric RNA molecules that were engineered into a two-in-one drug for previously “undruggable” cell targets. “Many cancers that have a KRAS mutation also activate MYC downstream, and both are largely considered undruggable targets. For nearly four decades we’ve lacked drugs for these targets, although a lot has been learned about their roles in cancer and how they work in concert together. We’ve found that when we target them both together, you get way more bang for your buck compared to targeting just one or the other.”
“The UNC Lineberger Tier 2 grant allowed us to develop and optimize the RNA molecule and turn it into a drug, then we were able to see what it was doing in tumor models,” Pecot said. “This recently allowed us to obtain additional funding from the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina, and now we can start studying how the tumor adapts to the drug. Once we get more data about how the tumors develop resistance, I’m hoping to pull this work into an RO1 proposal, thus leveraging the work into grants with a broader scope and budget.”
As director of the RNA Discovery Center, Pecot is focused on capitalizing on the advancements made in RNA research and moving it further into the future with possibilities like cancer vaccines, using engineered RNAs as medicine, or using small molecules to drug RNA. One of the ultimate goals of the RNA Discovery Center is to see RNA medicines be given to patients being treated at UNC, truly bringing the bench to the bedside.
From cancer patient to cancer physician-researcher
Pecot hasn’t forgotten his time as a patient and those experiences still guide him in his clinical work and research today.
“I think about how I’ve really come full circle, from where I started with cancer as a college student, to becoming a cancer doctor and developing medicines that could hopefully help society,” he said. “Getting cancer made me focus on cancer patients, and the innovation of how we create medicines for others is energizing for me. Seeing the patients in the clinic, running a lab discovering the ways in which cancer grows and spreads and engineering the molecules to create new medicines is a lot to juggle, but it’s really fun.”
And UNC Lineberger gives Pecot the opportunity to innovate and grow as an entrepreneur, as well. With access to Research Triangle Park and the biotech companies housed there, he sees opportunities for his research to reach as many people as possible.
“I feel appreciated and supported, and it’s such a fertile environment to grow and be happy in. It’s a special place,” he said.
When he is not in the lab or the clinic, Pecot enjoys spending time with his family – he and his wife have two daughters – and he enjoys walks on the beach and mountain biking near his home in Pittsboro, North Carolina.