Distinguished Researcher Award, Basic Life Sciences: John Nitiss, College of Pharmacy 

A man in a checkered shit in a laboratory.
John Nitiss, professor of pharmacology. (Photo: Randi Sparkman/UIC)

Often in baking, the secret ingredient is yeast, the microorganism responsible for fermentation, which makes bread rise. But UIC researcher John Nitiss found another crucial role for yeast; he uses it in his laboratory to understand the mechanism behind anti-cancer drugs. 

“Yeast is a fabulous system for understanding how any sort of drug works,” said Nitiss, professor of pharmacology. “And when I started out, we didn’t know how many chemotherapy drugs worked at all. If you have something that works a little bit, and you don’t know how it works, how can you make it better?” 

That question has driven Nitiss’ research, spanning the Illinois Institute of Technology to Harvard to UIC, where he has worked on the Rockford campus since 2011. Using yeast allows scientists to study how drug action is affected when they turn certain genes on and off. That process pointed him to an enzyme called DNA topoisomerase, which helps protect genetic material from damage as it’s transcribed and copied. 

“If you have a really tangled cord that you just wish you could cut and stitch back together again, that’s exactly what topoisomerase does with DNA,” said Nitiss, who is a member of the University of Illinois Cancer Center. “It allows you to untangle things and then stick everything back together again correctly.” 

Nitiss’ lab discovered that drugs derived from bacteria targeting the activity of DNA topoisomerase could help kill cancer cells. But further experiments showed that mutations in the enzyme can also cause cancer.  

“You now have this really interesting balance of an enzyme that’s a target for anti-cancer drugs, but it’s also an enzyme that, when perturbed, can promote cancer,” Nitiss said. “That leaves us with a lot of things to explore and potentially some novel strategies for new cancer therapies.” 

The work combines Nitiss’ love of biochemistry and genetics, and it benefits from the collegial atmosphere of the university, where he’s the assistant dean for research at the Rockford campus. He said the award should be shared with his laboratory’s own secret ingredient: his wife, Karin Nitiss, a research associate professor who has been a collaborator and co-author on his research over the last three decades. 

“It’s a partnership,” Nitiss said. “It’s not just me. It’s John and Karin, or Karin and John.” 

Read about other recipients of the 2023 Researcher, Scholar and Inventor of the Year awards this week on UIC today, with new profiles posted each day. On April 22, you’ll find coverage on UIC today from the awards ceremony. 

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