Laboratory Based Research

One in five Australian men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer within their lifetime and approximately 3,500 Australian men will die of this awful disease this year.

In many cases prostate cancer only becomes fatal when it spreads to other parts of the body.

Research being undertaken at the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research led by Dr Grant Buchanan and his team, is focused on preventing the deadly spread of the disease.

Men who have the prostate removed to cure localised cancer (thought to be in the prostate only) can often go on to suffer from metastatic disease because the cancer has already spread before surgery.

At the diagnosis stage it is difficult to predict or identify cells which have already spread or how the spread occurs.

The research team is focusing not just on the cancer cells themselves, but on the surrounding ‘architecture’ of the prostate which they think may play a key role.

The team is looking at the architecture as a possible determinant of whether a patient will ultimately succumb to the disease because of its ability to either hold the cancer cells in place within the prostate, or act as a vehicle for the cells to move to other areas of the body.

One of the key players in the ‘strength’ of the architecture is testosterone.

Men’s bodies are bathed with testosterone, and the team has found that testosterone is being used to create a sticky matrix environment around the prostate which captures normal and cancerous cells. When there is less testosterone present, this matrix is weakened, therefore allowing cancer cells to escape.

The aims of their current research is to understand how the architecture of the prostate is maintained, how it breaks down in lethal cancers and ultimately what can be done to stop the process.

The team hopes to get to a point where they can tell prostate cancer patients whether their cancer is localised to the prostate, or whether it has already spread or has a chance of spreading. This will inform therapy; whether a patient needs aggressive metastatic treatment immediately, or in patients where the cancer hasn’t spread, rigorous treatment can be avoided.

This work aims to give patients more information about their cancer and enable the development of more definitive treatments to prevent metastasis.

With better tools to diagnose patients the disease can be attacked earlier and less patients may reach the life-threatening stage where their disease has spread.

Cancer Australia is also supporting this vital work.

Visiting Research Fellow Dr Paul Drew and Dr Eric Smith are also conducting prostate cancer research.

Solid Cancer Regulation Research Group is looking at the role local fibroblasts play in controlling prostate cancer. Some prostate cancer patients are diagnosed with malignant and metastatic cancer, while some present with non-cancerous and premalignant changes in the prostate. They believe fibroblasts, cells which produce the fibres that hold tissues together and the gel that fills spaces between cells, may hold the answer. This research is ongoing.