Fred Hutchinson receives $12.7 million to lead prostate-cancer consortium

September 27, 2002

The National Cancer Institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded $12.7 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to lead a multi-center, five-year investigation into the genetic mechanisms of prostate-cancer progression. Understanding how and why prostate cancer can turn deadly is key to developing therapies that may effectively treat men with recurrent or advanced prostate cancer, for which there is no cure.

Known as the Pacific Northwest Prostate Cancer Research SPORE (short for Specialized Program of Research Excellence), the initiative will involve more than 50 investigators in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

Participating institutions in Seattle are Fred Hutchinson, the University of Washington and the Institute for Systems Biology. Vancouver partners are the University of British Columbia and its affiliate, The Prostate Centre at Vancouver General Hospital.

The strong history of collaboration among these institutions - themselves all major contributors to prostate-cancer research - was key to getting the grant, said principal investigator Paul Lange, M.D., professor and chair of urology at the UW School of Medicine and an affiliate investigator in Fred Hutchinson's Public Health Sciences Division.

"This highly competitive award exemplifies the high caliber of prostate-cancer research among the major medical-research institutions in the Pacific Northwest and the significant ongoing collaborations among researchers from each of the participating institutions," Lange said.

During the past decade, for example, a working group of Seattle prostate-cancer investigators has met regularly to collaborate on projects focused on understanding the hereditary and lifestyle factors behind prostate cancer and developing innovative technologies to unravel the genetic mechanisms of the disease. Fruits of their labor include mapping the region of a gene associated with inherited prostate cancer and primary brain cancer, as well as better understanding the genes expressed in the more common forms of prostate cancer.

"The close relationship between these institutions and our long-standing track record of success was crucial to getting the grant," echoes co-principal investigator Janet Stanford, Ph.D., a member of Fred Hutchinson's Public Health Sciences Division and director of its Prostate Cancer Research Program.

The Pacific Northwest Prostate Cancer SPORE grant follows closely on the heels of another major prostate-cancer research coup for the Seattle researchers; in July, the University of Washington was awarded $10.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to lead a multi-center, five-year investigation into the basic causes of why prostate cancer metastasizes, or spreads, to the bone. Participating institutions in this effort are Fred Hutchinson and the Institute for Systems Biology, co-founded by former UW geneticist Leroy Hood, M.D., Ph.D.

Together, the two hefty grants, totaling $23.2 million, give area researchers unprecedented opportunities in their ongoing efforts to better understand prostate cancer and develop improved therapies, particularly for men with recurrent or advanced disease. "There hasn't been a lot of improvement in the survival of men with advanced prostate cancer over the past 30 years, so to focus on understanding the factors that may contribute to progression from clinically less aggressive to more aggressive disease is important if we're to develop therapies that will effectively treat these men," said Stanford, also a professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

As such, the overarching goal of the consortium is to bring, more quickly and efficiently, laboratory discoveries to patient bedsides throughout the Pacific Northwest. A variety of clinical partners throughout the Northwest will recruit and enroll patients for research studies to test the therapies that emerge. They will include the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (the oncology patient-care arm of Fred Hutchinson, UW Academic Medical Center and Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center) and the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle; the Oregon Cancer Institute/Oregon Health & Science University in Portland; and Vancouver General Hospital/University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Prostate cancer is the most common male cancer; an estimated 1.5 million Americans live with the disease, which affects one in six and is the second-leading cause of death from cancer in men. An estimated 189,000 men will be diagnosed this year and about 30,200 will die of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Due to the prevalence of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, screening, the majority of men are diagnosed early, before the disease has spread beyond the prostate. Only 6 percent of men first are diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that has migrated to the bones. While initial diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer is rare, recurrence after primary therapy is not. Several population-based studies have found that among men under age 70 who are diagnosed with localized prostate cancer, between 20 percent and 30 percent will develop a recurrence and many of them will die from the disease, Stanford said. Once the disease spreads to the bone, the median survival is 36 months.

Male hormones, or androgens, are known to fuel prostate-cancer growth, so current treatments for advanced prostate cancer focus on slowing the progression of the disease through surgical or chemical castration, also known as androgen-deprivation therapy. Prostate cancer consists of both "hormone-sensitive" and "hormone-insensitive" cells, and everyone's ratio of such cells is different. Eliminating the body's major source of androgens, such as testosterone, interrupts the pathway of hormone production that speeds the growth of hormone-sensitive cancer cells. While such therapy works for a while to increase the length of life, it is not considered curative, as androgen deprivation is only effective in controlling the growth of the cancer cells that feed on male hormones. Eventually, these hormone-sensitive cells are crowded out by hormone-insensitive cancer cells, which don't depend on male hormones to proliferate. Improving the treatment options for men faced with recurrent prostate cancer that no longer responds to androgen-deprivation therapy is the unifying mission behind the consortium's four scientific projects, all of which seek to apply the insights of laboratory and epidemiological research to better understand how and why prostate cancer spreads. Below are brief descriptions of each project:
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