PhD student Damien Leach has watched his uncle and several friends’ fathers suffer from prostate cancer. This drives him as he investigates how and why prostate cancer spreads to other parts of the body in some people and not in others.
Tell us about your research…
Early diagnosis is paramount in prostate cancer. If the cancer can be removed or contained to the prostate then the chances of a person living a long and happy life are high. The problem is when the cancer spreads or metastasises.
My project is focused on the cells (fibroblasts) that surround the prostate cancer, and how they interact with the cancerous tumour, specifically in regard to androgens (testosterone) and how they work within the fibroblast to affect the cancer. The aim of my research is to see how each fibroblast controls the prostate cancer spread; in other words, how these fibroblasts either hold the cancer in place or allow the cancer to move out of the prostate.
How does prostate cancer affect people differently?
Some men with the disease will have the cancer confined to the prostate which is not life threatening. However in patients where the cancer spreads there is a dramatic reduction in patient survival, and unfortunately treatment at this point is largely palliative.
One of the major issues in prostate cancer is determining which patients are more likely to have cancer spread. So by understanding the mechanisms of metastasis we can defy and develop a predictive test to identify those patients at risk.
Currently, prognosis and treatment is judged on what the cancer looks like under the microscope. If person is thought to have a non-aggressive tumour, they may not receive any treatment, but be monitored for signs of progression. Unfortunately this can create insecurity and be a considerable emotional strain for people and their families. However, if a person is thought to be at risk of progression, the prostate and tumour can be removed. This of course can affect the patient’s quality of life by causing incontinence and other problems. If the cancer spreads or already has spread there are drugs designed to block or inhibit androgens (testosterone), which are important to the growth of normal and cancerous prostate. However, as testosterone is important in a man’s natural functioning, this can have a number of negative effects.
Why is your research so important?
My research is aimed at understanding cancer spread, and in turn developing accurate means of determining if cancer will or has already spread. This will be important in helping guide patient treatment by providing markers predictive of prostate cancer spread, with the possibility of future findings providing targets for therapies.