An Introduction to Targeted Cancer Therapies


University of Kentucky pic
University of Kentucky

As a student in the pharmaceutical sciences PhD program at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Sherif Mohamed El-Refai focused on experimental clinical treatments. Dr. Sherif Mohamed El-Refai works on assessing individual genetic responses to cancer therapies.

In traditional chemotherapy, potent drugs attack and kill any rapidly dividing cells within the body. This ideally leads to the death of cancer cells and thus the reduction in size of tumors, though it often also results in the development of unpleasant side effects. The recent development of targeted cancer therapies, however, are specially designed to harm only the cancerous cells and can thus optimize effectiveness while minimizing side effects.

Most cancer cells have genetic anomalies that make them different from normal cells. These anomalies cause abnormally high production of a certain protein, which in turn leads to the development of cancer. In addressing these genetic and protein changes, targeted therapies can address a cancer’s root cause.

Today’s targeted therapies may block a protein, refine the body’s immune response, or destroy the proteins that keep a cancer cell alive. The appropriateness of each as a treatment method depends on the patient’s cancer type as well as his or her individual body chemistry and gene expression.


Admission Considerations to UNC’s PharmD Program


University of North Carolina's Enshelman School of Pharmacy pic
University of North Carolina’s Enshelman School of Pharmacy

Sherif Mohamed El-Refai joined the Markey Cancer Center in 2014 to work as an oncology pharmacist. Prior to this stint, Sherif Mohamed El-Refai earned his PharmD at the University of North Carolina’s Enshelman School of Pharmacy.

The doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) is a professional degree for pharmacists that enables an individual to take a licensure exam and practice as a pharmacist in the clinical setting. In evaluating candidates for admission, the University of North Carolina considers several factors.

Prior to seeking admission, the applicant must have already completed two years of undergraduate study, but they may be accepted regardless of whether they will have a baccalaureate degree or not. For those entering without a baccalaureate degree, a transfer equivalency process will need to be undertaken. All math, science, and general education prerequisites should also be completed.

The admissions committee will do a holistic review of the applicant’s academic performance: Pharmacy College Admission Test exam scores, extracurricular activities, community service experiences, and leadership experiences. The applicant’s personal statement is also weighed into the decision.

While prior pharmacy-related or healthcare experience is not a prerequisite, having them in one’s portfolio is recommended. Prior experience in undergraduate or professional research is also a plus.

Key Questions for Your Pharmacist

Markey Cancer Center pic
Markey Cancer Center

Sherif Mohamed El-Refai comes to his role backed by a doctor of pharmacy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he learned a variety of clinical skills that drive his work. Now an oncology pharmacist at the University of Kentucky Hospital’s Markey Cancer Center, Sherif Mohamed El-Refai is pursuing a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences to expand his knowledge of the profession.

Before walking out of the pharmacy with a prescription, a patient should first know the name of the medication and its intended purpose. Having this information allows the patient to communicate his or her medications in case of an emergency and to share medical history with a new physician.

Patients should be sure that they understand how often and at what time of day they should take the medication and whether they should take it with or without food. Similarly, it is important for all patients to know how long they should continue to take the medication, as some drugs need to act on the body even after symptoms begin to improve.

All patients must know whether the drug interacts with any medication, or with any food or drink that they might consume. Some interactions cause dangerous reactions, while others block the effect of the drug on the body. Patients should be equally aware of any potential side effects, both expected and potential, as well as the pharmacist’s recommendations for what to do in case of a missed or incorrect dose.

The Black Lab at the Markey Cancer Center

Markey Cancer Center pic
Markey Cancer Center

After earning a PharmD at the University of North Carolina and a PhD in pharmaceutical science at the University of Kentucky, Sherif Mohamed El-Refai wanted to put his pharmacy expertise to use in serving diverse patient populations. In 2014, Sherif Mohamed El-Refai joined the Markey Cancer Center as an oncology pharmacist to research improvements in treatment for lung cancer.

The Markey Cancer Center, founded in 1983 at the University of Kentucky, operates in affiliation with the College of Medicine and the College of Pharmacy. Striving to reduce the morbidity and mortality of cancer, Markey provides multidisciplinary clinical care for patients and conducts comprehensive research on ways to prevent, detect, and treat various cancers. Markey is the only cancer center in Kentucky designated by the National Institute of Cancer and one of only a few across the country.

One particular area of research is on cancer cell biology and signaling and another on drug discovery, delivery, and translational therapeutics. Along those lines, the Black Lab was established in 2004 to examine gene expression and how control of gene expression in individual patients affects the ways in which they respond to different treatments. After analyzing patient responses, researchers in the Black Lab then conduct experiments to test and improve therapies.

The Purpose of the University of Kentucky’s Black Lab

University of Kentucky pic
University of Kentucky

Pharmacist Sherif Mohamed El-Refai is working toward a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences as a student in the doctoral program at the University of Kentucky. Sherif Mohamed El-Refai joined the university’s Black Lab research group to study lung cancer.

Established in 2004, the Black Lab is part of the University of Kentucky’s College of Pharmacy. Maintaining membership with the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, National Lung Cancer Partnership, and American Association for Cancer Research, among other oncology research organizations, the lab and its researchers focus on comprehension of gene expressions and its impact on cancer therapy. This is achieved by designing wet-lab experiments using patient tumors as well as analyzing bio-informatics data.

The lab has successfully produced numerous publications since its inception. In 2015, the group released a publication on how corporate communication strategies can be integrated into doctoral pharmaceutical sciences programs to help students gain communications skills unrelated to science. The previous year, works on endocrine therapy and a phase II study of fulvestrant and everolimus were published. Both concentrated on the breast cancer treatment.

Understanding Pharmacogenomics

Pharmacogenomics  pic

A pharmacist pursuing his doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences through the University of Kentucky, Sherif Mohamed El-Refai researches lung cancer and serves the Markey Cancer Center as oncology pharmacist. Sherif Mohamed El-Refai’s scientific background also includes a period studying pharmacogenomics as a doctor of pharmacy student with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pharmacogenomics is a field of study that examines how genetic factors interact with medications. Often times, when doctors prescribe drugs to a patient, they do so with the hope that those patients will respond similarly. However, pharmacogenomics is based on the fact that each patient is unique and will therefore have differing reactions to drugs, meaning some may exhibit strong or adverse reactions to medications while others will experience no reaction at all.

By researching pharmacogenomics, scientists hope to one day predict how individual patients will respond to specific drugs. Currently, there are many clinical trials using pharmacogenomic approaches to study how people react to medications intended to treat conditions ranging from heart disease to depression.

Recognizing Excellence – The American Pharmacists Association

American Pharmacists Association pic
American Pharmacists Association

An oncology pharmacist at the Markey Cancer Center, Sherif Mohamed El-Refai is studying pharmaceutical sciences with a focus on clinical and experimental therapeutics at the University of Kentucky. Sherif Mohamed El-Refai also is a member of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA).

Committed to advancing patient care, advocating for the profession, and helping members strengthen their careers, APhA is open to the industry’s students, practitioners, and scientists. With over 62,000 members nationwide, the association was founded in 1852 as the American Pharmaceutical Association. It continues to offer a range of benefits, from continuing education programs and advocacy work to outreach and practice tools for professionals. Additionally, APhA’s comprehensive recognition program grants a number of awards and honors each year.

Apart from profession-wide awards, such as the Distinguished New Practitioner Award and the Good Government Pharmacist of the Year Award, APhA grants specialized awards for scientific and practitioner excellence. For example, the Ebert Prize, the country’s oldest pharmacy award, is given for the best written work published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Another award, the APhA-APPM Pharmacy Management Excellence Award, is determined by a nominee’s work with APhA-related activities, community service, and his or her impact on the field of pharmacy management as a whole. Pharmacy students also are eligible for a variety of awards and scholarships, with special recognition for outstanding achievement and student leadership.