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BIDMC Researcher Tackling Treatment-Resistant Prostate Cancer

By Alexa Pozniak
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among American men, but investigators at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are feverishly working to change that. Tucked away in the Center for Life Sciences building, research teams are on the leading edge of developing new treatments for patients with an advanced form of the disease, which kills 30,000 men each year.

Dr. Steven Balk, a researcher in the Division of Hematology and Oncology, and colleague Dr. Martin Sanda were each awarded a $1 million Challenge Award grant from the Prostate Cancer Foundation. They will each lead cross-disciplinary teams in pursuit of new treatments for patients with advanced prostate cancer. BIDMC is the only institution to receive funding for two projects.

Since the advent of PSA testing, doctors are able to diagnose and treat the disease at an early stage. Still, 10 to 20 percent of cases are diagnosed as late-stage.

Treatment for this subset of men typically consists of hormone therapy. The goal is to lower levels of male hormones (called androgrens) which include testosterone. Low androgen levels can cause prostate tumors to shrink considerably or grow more slowly.

Men for whom this therapy is ineffective are given a course of chemotherapy followed by a promising new drug, Abiraterone acetate, which was approved by the FDA in April 2011. It specifically blocks the production of androgens by the tumor itself, along with the testes and adrenal glands. But, as with previously approved treatments, some patients become resistant to this as well. Dr. Balk's research will seek to determine why.

"For every therapy in cancer, you ask 'what's the basis for resistance?' and that's what helps you develop the next therapy," said Dr. Balk. "We've already made a nice step forward. Now the question is 'what's the next step?' What if we give these therapies much earlier? Does there start to be the potential to cure patients? That's a second aspect to our efforts."

The findings from Dr. Balk's team could potentially help to design more effective and targeted therapy for metastatic treatment-resistant disease.

Dr. Balk's research proposal was one of 10 the Prostate Cancer Foundation chose. A total of 59 entries were submitted by teams from cancer centers around the world. The foundation allocates grants to projects that address the most challenging problems.

While Dr. Balk says funding for prostate cancer research ranks right up there with that of pancreatic, lung, and colon cancers, the Challenge Award money is extremely beneficial.

"It's a substantial grant, it allows us to do things we couldn't do otherwise," he explained. "The Prostate Cancer Foundation is a private foundation. They try to step up and fill voids and holes in research and provide resources to translate basic advances and move them forward to get them into people. Then you can see the real benefit."

A benefit that could potentially save the lives of many men.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted October 2011

Contact Information

Prostate Cancer Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Clincial Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617-667-7777
Fax: 617-667-7292