June 15, 2023
Nicholas Farrell, VCU chemist with a major legacy in cancer treatment, retires after 30 years
Professor helped develop Triplatin, a drug with the potential to treat ‘some of the most aggressive cancer types’ – and helped develop countless student researchers.
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Nicholas Farrell still lights up when he talks about his students.
“I recently had a high school student intern in my lab. She came in once or twice a week, and I always looked forward to it. She was so excited. She was like a sponge!” said Farrell, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences. “This was just last year, after 30-plus years of teaching, and it did away with any of my tiredness. Her excitement was infectious.”
Farrell is retiring this year, his career marked by jointly holding more than 70 patents, being inducted into VCU’s chapter of the National Academy of Inventors in 2018 and receiving the University Award of Excellence in 2020, one of VCU’s highest honors. But amid his significant contributions to cancer treatment, his impact on students stands out.
“When you get feedback from someone who feels inspired, especially undergraduates, it makes all the effort that goes into teaching worth it,” Farrell said.
Jillian Harrison, who graduated this year as a chemistry major, knows that inspired feeling. She joined Farrell’s lab after taking his inorganic chemistry class in 2021.
“It was really fun to learn inorganic chemistry from someone who had made such significant contributions to the cancer research field and could thus make the applicability of what we were learning really clear,” Harrison said. “Dr. Farrell was immediately extremely welcoming to me when I asked to join his lab. He is a true chemist in the sense that, after a very long career, he still gets excited when discussing the chemical mechanisms relevant to our lab's research. You might be completely stumped about what is happening in a particular chemical interaction, and after a 10-minute conversation with him, you will have five new possibilities for what might be occurring.”
As proof of Farrell’s influence, Harrison plans to attend medical school, with a particular interest in cancer research and infectious disease.
All VCU chemistry majors are required to have an advanced laboratory experience, and many seek out faculty research labs for independent study. Farrell has been enthusiastic about expanding lab access.
“Dr. Farrell has taken a lead role in the department by welcoming undergraduates in his laboratory, especially those with backgrounds underrepresented in chemistry or those with more enthusiasm than high GPAs,” said Sally Hunnicutt, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty and academic affairs and a professor of chemistry. “A majority of these students are co-authors on publications from his research group, and a majority also go on to graduate school or chemistry careers.”
A pioneer in the fight against cancer
Farrell came to VCU in fall 1993 from the University of Vermont, where a colleague, an oncologist, received an offer from the Massey Cancer Center. Farrell decided to follow him to VCU to continue the work the two were doing on the development of cancer drugs. Eventually, Farrell would develop a new class of cancer drugs – one of which, Triplatin, received clinical trials.
“It was a new concept for platinum chemotherapy. Up to 50% of cancer patients will receive a platinum drug in combination with most chemotherapies,” Farrell said. “Triplatin changed the paradigm for what we call structure activity relationships. In other words, when the anti-cancer activity of platinum was discovered in the 1970s, it was considered to be restricted to one specific structural type, and we showed them that this wasn’t true. It opened up the field to different facets of compounds, and therefore different possibilities in treatment – especially the ability to overcome clinical resistance to the currently used drugs.”
Farrell said his work has benefited from his longtime partnership with the Massey Cancer Center.
“I do want to emphasize the notion of collaboration,” he said. “I think it is so critical for VCU. I feel that bridging the gap between the two campuses [Monroe Park and the medical campus] is important. A successful approach to drug development requires the melding of various expertises – no one laboratory is ever equipped to handle the multiple tasks involved, and instead, a team effort is essential. These collaborations contribute greatly to the medical community. Research can save lives.”
Robert A. Winn, M.D., director and Lipman Chair in Oncology of the Massey Cancer Center, noted the breadth of Farrell’s legacy.
"To gauge Nick Farrell’s impacts on cancer research, look no further than the extended and enhanced lives his discoveries have afforded patients. That contribution is immeasurable," Winn said. "His name has become synonymous with the hope that platinum drugs offer individuals diagnosed with some of the most aggressive cancer types. Through collaborations Nick forged over his decades of service, scientists will now continue to build upon his work within Massey's Developmental Therapeutics research program and across the field of oncology."
‘Retiring’ with plenty to do
Though Farrell is officially retiring, it doesn’t mean he plans to stop working.
“I’m continuing the work to complete my research goal of reintroducing Triplatin to the clinic based on new understandings of how it works, to interact with students, and to continue the intellectual pursuit,” he said. “I have papers to write, things to finish. I’m going to try and write a large review of the work we did, for posterity.”
In between, Farrell hopes to have more time for watching soccer, playing squash, traveling with his wife, visiting his granddaughter and honing his photography skills.
No matter the pursuit, he said VCU and the partnerships he forged will remain central to his thoughts.
“At VCU, I have benefited from some excellent collaborators and especially excellent lab managers. I can sincerely attest to the genuine collegiality I have found in blending chemistry with biology, united by our common goal to make a difference. This extends internationally, where collaborators have become close friends,” Farrell said. “I always say research is a journey – both personal and professional – and there was no better travel companion than VCU.”
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