Identifying the spread of prostate cancer

A new study at Lawson Health Research Institute aims to better understand and identify the spread of prostate cancer.

In 2015, an estimated 4,100 Canadian men died from prostate cancer. Prostate cancer deaths are caused primarily by metastasis, which is the spread of cancer from the prostate to other organs. One way to assess whether a patient’s cancer has spread is through a clinical blood test.

This blood test identifies the presence of circulating tumour cells (CTCs) in the blood of prostate cancer patients. CTCs are cells that have shed from the primary tumour in the patient’s prostate. A greater number of CTCs is associated with reduced chances of survival.

Lawson’s Dr. Alison Allan and her team are Canadian leaders in CTC analysis. Their previous studies suggest the current blood test needs improvement as it may not be identifying the most aggressive kinds of CTCs in prostate cancer patients.

In order to address this issue, Dr. Allan and her student, Jenna Kitz, will be further studying CTCs and their metastatic behavior. Kitz, who is beginning a Master’s program in Anatomy & Cell Biology at Western University this fall, will modify specific proteins found in CTCs to determine if this increases or decreases their metastatic behavior, causing cancer to spread, as well as their ability to be detected by the current clinical blood test.

“By performing detailed analysis of CTCs, we hope to compile information on how to improve the current test,” said Dr. Allan, a senior oncology scientist at the London Regional Cancer Program

“Our research may help to create a new industry standard of CTC blood tests with increased effectiveness,” said Kitz. “This work will also allow us to identify key characteristics of aggressive CTCs, with potential for the development of new therapies that target these properties.”

This research project, “Dynamic influence of the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition on circulating tumor cell (CTC) generation, phenotype, and progression to metastasis in prostate cancer,” is being funded through a Lawson Internal Research Fund (IRF) Studentship award. Lawson’s IRF is designed to allow scientists and students the opportunity to obtain start-up funds for new projects with exciting potential. Kitz received a Studentship award as part of the Spring 2016 IRF Competition.

“Funding opportunities like Lawson’s IRF are so important for pursuing new ideas and generating preliminary data before seeking funding from larger agencies,” said Dr. Allan. “It also provides trainees like Jenna with the internal support they need to build their research experience.”

“I was very excited when I first learned about the research in Dr. Allan’s lab,” said Kitz. “I couldn’t be more eager to begin this research and make a contribution to the advancement of metastatic prostate cancer diagnosis.”