Movember research gets hairy

You may have heard of Movember — an annual initiative to raise awareness for men’s health by growing a moustache.

Whilst it means that for a month the little upper lip tickler will have food caught in it and questionable germs, it’s all for a good cause.

One of the main funding outlets for this hairy situation focusses on prostate cancer, which only affects men, transwomen, and possibly some intersex people.

What is prostate cancer?

The prostate gland is part of the male reproductive system. It produces most of the fluid that makes up semen that enriches sperm. It requires testosterone to grow and develop. In prostate cancer, abnormal cells develop in the prostate. These multiply uncontrollably and can eventually spread to other parts of the body.

Prostate cancer facts:

  1. In Australia, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men.
  2. More than 3000 men die of prostate cancer in Australia every year.
  3. More men die of prostate cancer than women die of breast cancer.

Earlier this month, the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia and the Movember Foundationawarded two Australian clinicians in the new category. The 2015 Movember Clinician Scientist Award recipients are:

  • Dr Kate Mahon (Garvan Institute of Medical Research), awarded for her work in Docetaxel (chemotherapy) resistance in advanced metastatic prostate cancer.
  • Dr Ian Vela (Queensland University of Technology), awarded for his work into precision medicine in advanced and oligometastatic prostate cancer.

These clinicians are working in the laboratory and are showing promising work into the treatment of prostate cancer at different stages.

We couldn’t resist finding out more. We moustache a few questions!

Dr Kate Mahon:

Dr Mahon’s research focuses on Docetaxel (chemotherapy) at the advanced, metastatic stage of prostate cancer, in which cancer has spread to other parts of the body. However, it does not work in half of all patients. Currently, this response cannot be determined until after 9 weeks of chemotherapy. Her research is looking at verifying a blood test which can determine if treatments is working much earlier — after around 3 weeks.

How does Docetaxel work?

“Docetaxel is called a spindle poison which traps a cell in mitosis (cell division) just before they divide into two cells. This process causes the cells to eventually die.”

Does Docetaxel resistance differ at different stages of prostate cancer?

At the earlier stage of disease, “we suspect that resistance to docetaxel is less but we don’t yet have much evidence for this”. However, “in the advanced stages of disease, once hormone therapies are no longer effective, only around 50% of men will respond to Docetaxel”. This research will help understand the resistance of Docetaxel in prostate cancer patients.

How are these blood markers tested?

“These blood markers can be tested in easily collected and stored blood samples, without any need for special processing”. The technology is already available in clinical laboratories, “making it easy to apply if the markers prove to be useful”. With this, she hopes to be able to improve the outcomes of patients with advanced prostate cancer.

What do you love about being a clinician scientist?

Being a clinician scientist is a great work mix that is always interesting and challenging. I get to work with brilliant, dedicated scientists where we meld our very different skill sets for a common goal. I am certainly never bored!

Dr Ian Vela:

Dr Vela is looking at the emerging concept of “precision medicine” and “liquid biopsies” in advanced prostate cancer.

What are the advantages of precision medicine over traditional medical treatments?

“The “traditional” medical approach is to use therapies shown to have efficacy in specific cancers through large clinical trials.” However, this isn’t always effective. Precision medicine may allow specific therapies to be used in patients that are not traditionally used for that particular cancer. They may have better “efficacy due to mutations or targets that are present in the individual cancer patient”. Cancers also evolve over time, often in response to treatments. Precision medicine aims to not just “keep up” with the evolving cancer, but to “get ahead of it”.

The benefit is “matching the right treatment, to the right patient at the right time and thereby improving outcomes”.

Can you explain how a “liquid biopsy” is performed?

A “liquid biopsy” refers to circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and/or circulating cell free tumor DNA (cfDNA) taken from the blood of patients. This minimally invasive blood test will allow access to “information about the cancer in a patient without the need for a potentially more invasive or painful biopsy of the cancer deposits”.

The CTCs may also potentially be used for further drug screening to test efficacy prior to treatment in the patient.

What do you love about being a clinician scientist?

Being a surgeon is an honour and privilege and the technical aspects of cancer surgery are both rewarding and challenging. One of the very important aspects of my research life is the potential to help many more patients through medical research breakthroughs that may stem from such research programs as the one being supported through this fellowship.

Congratulations to these two well-deserved winners.

PCFA to announce other winners in: Clinical Trials, Young Investigator and New Concept Grants category in late November.

In the meantime, look out for the men in your life. And please, let them know if they have food caught in their moustache this Movember.

Further reading:

Top 3 men’s health tips from Dr Kate Mahon and Dr Ian Vela.

For more information about prostate cancer, check out the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia website.

Originally published on The Royal Institution of Australia: