September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, raising awareness for the most common cancer type amongst Australian men. In 2020, it is expected that 16,471 men will be diagnosed with new cases of prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer only occurs in males as women do not have a prostate. It develops when abnormal cells in the prostate gland mutate or grow out of control, forming a malignant tumour. The prostate is a small gland that sits below the bladder near the rectum and surrounds the urethra, which is the passage in the penis through which urine and semen pass.
As part of this cancer awareness month, we share the innovative approaches that Cure Cancer’s funded scientists are developing to treat prostate cancer.
Supported by Cure Cancer in 2014, 2015 and 2018, Dr Jyotsna Batra specialises in prostate cancer research as an independent group leader at the Queensland University of Technology, based at the Translational Research Institute in Brisbane.
Through her research, Jyotsna has discovered genetic variations - specifically in the regulation of proteins encoded in a person’s DNA - that predispose men to prostate cancer . These genetic variations are promising therapeutic targets for new treatments for the disease.
‘The funding allowed me to take the lead from previous work and continue to progress to testing on patients,’ she says. ‘It’s given me the freedom to carry out novel and advanced research, which wouldn’t have been otherwise possible.’
She believes that changes in gene sequences combined with the traditional Prostate-Specific Antigen blood test (which can be unreliable on its own), can serve as significant biomarkers to identify men more likely to develop prostate cancer. These biomarkers can also help differentiate the slowly progressive type from the aggressive form of the disease.
‘By analysing the DNA of around 50,000 individuals, half of which belongs to prostate cancer patients, we’ve identified 100 genetic variations associated with prostate cancer risk,’ she says. ‘They can collectively explain about 30% of the inherited component of the disease.’
For Jyotsna, there is an urgency to her work as much of her research is conducted on samples taken directly from prostate cancer patients. ‘I can feel patients’ anxiety in the initial stages of diagnosis,’ she says. ‘Affected men are keen to find out whether they should wait and watch, or start aggressive treatment as soon as possible.’
In 2018, Jyotsna was awarded Researcher of the Year by Cure Cancer’s research committee, an accolade recognising the outstanding achievements of early-career researchers and highlights the importance of seed funding within the research space. To date, Jyotsna has published a total of 128 articles. In 2012, she was awarded the Carla Patterson Early Career Researcher Award for the top IHBI publication, and in 2015 and again in 2017, she received the Princess Alexandra Foundation Award for Research Excellence.
Focus and passion are essential attributes of a successful researcher, Jyotsna believes and relays the importance that ‘smart work’ can deliver innovative successes.
Dr Zeyad Nassar
For Dr Zeyad Nassar, his foray into medicine has led him to experience the devastating effects that cancer can have on many patients. After completing his bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy in 2007, he joined a hospital pharmacy in Amman, Jordan. ‘Hearing their stories, experiences and dreams made me appreciate the urgent need to find a cure for this devastating disease,’ he explains.
His interactions with cancer patients fuelled his desire to make a difference and he has since specialised in prostate cancer, particularly finding pathways to attack it. In Australia alone, approximately 3,000 men die from prostate cancer every year.
Prostate cancer depends mainly on the metabolism of lipids (molecules including fat) in tumours to spread. Despite this, scientists haven’t yet properly explored the role of fatty acid metabolism in the progression of the disease, or its potential as a target for therapy.
Based at the University of Adelaide of Medical School, Zeyad’s work evaluates the targeting of lipid metabolism pathways in prostate cancer. As cancer cells use lipids to gain the energy they need to multiply and invade distant tissues, Zeyad is therefore trying to identify and inhibit the activity of the most functional lipid enzymes in prostate cancer cells, thus preventing them from producing energy.
He hopes to use the information he discovers to introduce new treatment options, especially at the late stage of the disease when it’s notoriously resistant to currently available drugs. ‘We hope this will significantly impact prostate cancer mortality,’ says Zeyad.
He expresses his deepest gratitude to Cure Cancer donors and fundraisers. ‘Starting a research career after a PhD is never easy,’ he says. ‘Competition for funding is tough, grants dedicated for early career researchers are rare, funding is scarce and young scientists are struggling to introduce their novel and creative ideas.’
‘This grant will help me keep working in the medical research field, using cutting-edge technologies to address critical clinical questions. It will also help me to publish high-quality research manuscripts and make me more competitive for future national and international funding and fellowships.’
His achievements include graduating in the top three of his class at his university in Jordan and making the University and Dean’s Honours Lists several times.