Exploring prostate cancer treatment

Thursday 10 June 2021

The potential to save lives and extend the life of late stage prostate cancer patients is what keeps Dr Marianna Volpert coming back to the lab each day.

Having worked with the Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre of Queensland (APCRC-Q), based at the Translational Research Institute (TRI) on the PA Hospital campus since 2015, Dr Volpert said being able to potentially offer new treatment options and therefore hope to late stage cancer patients is what makes her work worthwhile.

Dr Marianna Volpert in the lab

"The APCRC-Q's research goals are developing new therapeutic strategies for advanced prostate cancer, with an emphasis on rationalised combination strategies with androgen-targeted agents," she said.

"My research in prostate cancer is focused on understanding the pathways that prostate cancer cells use to adapt to therapies, allowing them to become resistant.

"We have identified a number of proteins that prostate cancer cells use to survive therapy and are working on inhibiting these to improve therapy responses in patients with advanced prostate cancer, who often have few therapeutic options available."

With 1 in 6 men diagnosed with prostate cancer by the age of 85, Dr Volpert said she was drawn to prostate cancer research due to the nature of how the disease behaves and the opportunity to have an impact on the thousands of men who are diagnosed each year. Importantly the work of the APCRC-Q may translate to helping patients battling other forms of cancer.

"I became interested in prostate cancer because of its unique clinical management, where patients with advanced cancer are treated with drugs that target the androgen signalling pathway, which prostate cancer cells depend on for growth," she said.

"These drugs are great at managing prostate cancer for a long time, but unfortunately some patients will develop therapy-resistant disease. Understanding how tumours overcome sensitivity to drugs is fascinating, and the opportunity to discover and test novel drugs that may one day improve patient management is extremely rewarding.

"We have found some of the pathways we have identified as promoting aggressive, therapy-resistant prostate cancer to be important in driving tumour progression and poor prognosis in other cancer types.

"We have extended our research into breast cancer, where one of our target proteins is significantly over-expressed in a subtype of triple-negative breast cancer. Because triple-negative breast cancers are often aggressive and lack targeted therapies, this research has the potential to provide a novel targeted therapy for this subgroup of patients.

"We are currently performing pre-clinical drug testing in breast cancer models with very exciting preliminary results."

With her days consisting of lab work, data analysis, supervising students, writing journal articles, grant applications, and more, Dr Volpert is cognisant just how important funding from the PA Research Foundation (PARF) is in helping research teams like hers to advance their work.

"Without PA Research Foundation funding, the research we are doing would be impossible," she said.

"PARF funding allows us to afford the critical research reagents, consumables and equipment to perform the necessary pre-clinical testing to provide the basis for future clinical trials in patients. Lack of funding means that great research ideas with the potential to lead to clinical translation are left untested."

"As researchers, we are incredibly grateful for the generosity of donors, which offers hope to patients and enables critical research that could otherwise not be done."

The postdoctoral research fellow said working at TRI, just metres from the PA Hospital is not just a unique opportunity only the PA hospital campus can offer.

"Interacting with patients as well as clinicians at the hospital provides valuable insight into current clinical needs and helps to keep our research as patient focussed as possible. Working with clinicians at the hospital allows access to patient biopsy tissues, which are used to test novel and existing therapies.

Dr Marianna Volpert alongside her colleague Dr Lisa Philps

"Speaking with patients is a constant reminder of the critical role that research plays in the development of new treatment options and its potential to make a difference in patients' lives.

"I am always inspired by how interested patients are in the latest research and their hope that research discoveries can help them and future patients. These interactions give a sense of urgency to the work we do and keep us focussed on the best ways for our research to address current patient needs.

"Treatment options for prostate cancer patients are better than ever before, and if diagnosed early, patients have an excellent prognosis. New research is constantly improving our understanding of how tumours behave, providing new avenues to target different tumour subtypes and tailor therapies to individual patient needs.

"With PA Research Foundation funds, we are conducting pre-clinical studies to test novel inhibitors of advanced prostate cancer therapy resistance in tissues derived from patients, so that we can accurately assess the range of therapy responses that would be expected in the clinic. These studies will pave the way for clinical safety and efficacy trials in the near future."

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