A Brigham Young University biochemist has discovered a new enzyme that may lead to a better understanding and treatment of several diseases, including cancer, arthritis, asthma and infertility.

The National Institute of Health awarded Daniel L. Simmons a $300,000 grant to continue his research on the enzyme, cyclo-oxygenase 2.It is only the second such enzyme shown to exist. Simmons believes the enzyme may also help scientists understand how aspirin works on the body.

Cyclooxygenase makes an important group of molecules called prostaglandins responsible for fever and pain in such diseases as arthritis.

To inhibit the enzyme, people take non-sterodial, anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, etc., which attach to the enzyme and prevent it from functioning.

"People have known for a long time that aspirin works, but, in some respects, why it works has not been identified," Simmons said. "Our work at BYU with cyclooxygenase 2 will also examine how it influences the prostaglandins that affect the way aspirin works on the body."

Simmons discovered the enzyme while analyzing a virus that causes cancer using a model system with chickens.

"This virus carries a gene, picked up through evolution, that is a potent player in cell division," Simmons said.

To study how a virus with one growth-control gene can cause a cell to leave its normal growth pattern, Simmons isolated a set of genes. These genes had activated a cell infected with the virus and had started to divide in an uncontrolled manner.

After examining the genes, he detected the new enzyme.

"I immediately asked what role this enzyme plays in cancer," he said. "I'm studying ways to manipulate it to make an anti-cancer agent because when this virus transforms the fibroblast to a malignant state, it activates the gene encoding this enzyme for reasons we don't understand."

Simmons hopes to learn what causes this enzyme to be in the cell and whether it is common in all tumors.

"The immediate short-term benefit from this discovery will be in the area of developing better anti-inflammatory drugs," said Simmons, who has received many invitations to speak to drug companies.

"The research is being actively pursued by these companies to develop selective inhibitors of this second enzyme. Pharmaceutical companies have developed a collection of drugs made to inhibit cyclooxygenase," Simmons said. "If we could find one selective for this new type, it might be possible to modify it so it carries a toxin or radioisotope with it."

"We could then inject it, and it would travel through the blood stream and find cells that have high levels of cyclooxygenase 2. It would bind to the enzyme, just as a non-sterodial drug would do, but carry a toxin that would concentrate the toxin in the tumor. We could use this as an imaging technique to pick up very small and early stage tumors because they are contained in this new enzyme."

Simmons, whose primary work is cancer research, completed his postdoctoral work at Harvard and joined BYU as an assistant chemistry professor three years ago.