Researcher looking for a better way to tell if prostate cancer patients need hormone therapy
Cancer researcher Ken Kao (left) looks over a test with grad student Mark Kennedy in his lab at the MUN school of medicine. Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
A prostate cancer treatment that reduces male hormones in the body can save men's lives and stop cancer growth, but it has plenty of known side-effects - hot flashes, impotence, incontinence and osteoporosis.
This year, the Motorcycle Ride for Dad - with its Harley-Davidsons and leather jackets - raised around $42,000 for research that may lead to men only getting hormone therapy when it is most appropriate.
Doctors currently don't have a perfect way to know if hormone therapy will work for a patient, but a local biomedical researcher hopes to change that with his research into the function of Pygopus, a protein he has found to be a critical part of breast and ovarian cancer tumours.
Ken Kao, a biomedical science professor at Memorial University, works at the Terry Fox Cancer Research Laboratories. Hidden by a maze of corridors up in the upper floors of the medical school, the brightly lit lab is busy with graduate students and research assistants in lab coats and protective goggles.
Kao says a therapy that deprives the body of androgen, a male hormone, has been a mainstay of treating prostate cancer since the 1960s.
"But if you deprive a male of androgen then there are de-masculinizing effects, so in terms of quality of care and quality of treatment and patient quality of life, you want to minimize the amount of side-effects as much as possible," Kao explains.
"The more information you have on when to treat and how to treat, the better for patient care."
He's not alone in recognizing the need for research in this area. According to a review published earlier this year by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international group that reviews medical science, more research is needed to guide the choice of hormone deprivation therapy in treating prostate cancer.
Prostate tumours tend to have some parts that are more advanced than others. Kao says it becomes a problem for treatment when parts of the tumor are resistant to androgen deprivation therapy.
"Our bio-marker will potentially be able to give information to describe the aggressiveness of the tumour, and in so doing may help in the decision-making later on for what an oncologist would do to treat the patient," he says.
"It's very hypothetical at this point, but there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel saying we should go in this direction to use our bio-marker to describe the tumour a little better than what has previously been done."
In the initial research, Kao found that the Pygopus protein was indeed present in higher levels in androgen-independent prostate cancer cells. But he cautions that the research is still in the early stages.
"Scientifically, it's an area that hasn't been explored very well, and so we're actually breaking new ground in looking for new mechanisms as to how prostate cancer cells respond to androgen therapy," he says.
If Kao's hypothesis is correct, there is the possibility of developing a new diagnostic kit for prostate cancers.
Oncologist Dr. Cathy Popadiuk and pathologist Dan Fontaine will be working with Kao, as a continuation of their successful research into the presence of Pygopus in ovarian and breast cancers.
As well as the funding they are hoping to receive from the Motorcycle Ride for Dad through the H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre, Kao says the lab is receiving funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other organizations.
Paul Davis, spokesman for the Motorcycle Ride for Dad, says the ride was started to increase the money available for prostate cancer research and public education, and they set aside 80 per cent of their money for scientific work.
"When we can raise more money to do more research, we're achieving our goal," Davis says.
"Kao is fabulous. When you speak to him you get a feeling that this is really important to him, and he really wants to help to improve the ability to treat prostate cancer more successfully," Davis says.
Kao says the people he works with are excited about the research, particularly because of the community support.
"It's particularly nice that we have this very close relationship both with the H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Center and with the Motorcycle Ride for Dad. It makes you feel more motivated, because you actually meet people who are affected by the disease. It's really, really, really good," he says.
"It is intimidating standing in front of a bunch of leather-bound steel-toed motorcycle riders out there, and they're looking at you saying, 'You're going to solve this, aren't you?' But they're a great bunch of guys," he says, laughing.