March 24, 2000

Defense Department grant bolsters prostate cancer research efforts

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Dr. Robert Matusik holds up vials containing normal (left) and enlarged mouse prostates. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Defense Department grant bolsters prostate cancer research efforts

One in 10 men will develop prostate cancer in his lifetime.

It is a statistic that is expected to remain the same in the early 21st Century, but one that doesn't sit well with an increasingly vocal constituency that is exerting political pressure to increase funding for prostate cancer research. In response to the increasing pressure, the U.S. Congress earmarked $133 million for prostate cancer research in 1998 with a plan to increase funding by 270 percent to $420 million by 2003.

"As the Baby Boomer population ages and as lifespans increase, we'll continue to see 10 percent of this larger aged population of men developing prostate cancer, resulting in an increase in the number of prostate cancer cases," said Dr. Robert Matusik, professor of Urologic Surgery and Cell Biology. "The disease will become an increasing burden on the health care system."

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center is in a good position to benefit from that growing emphasis on prostate cancer with the award of a $1.5 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to establish the Vanderbilt Prostate Cancer Center (VPCC). The basic science grant funds a multi-disciplinary team of researchers investigating the roles of signals that promote and inhibit cell growth in prostate cancer.

Cancer of the prostate, a small, walnut-shaped gland that produces semen, will be diagnosed in more than 180,000 men this year and kill nearly 32,000, the American Cancer Society estimates. "It has been seen as a disease of the old, and, frankly, it's been neglected as a health care and research priority," Matusik said. "Men are starting to become more vocal, and their wives, who are indirectly affected by this disease, are becoming very involved and vocal advocates. So there's finally a push in the U.S. to give notice to a disease that affects so many people. That's why the DOD funding was established."

More than 40 centers filed letters of intent for the grant, and the DOD entertained applications from 20 of those, said Matusik, director of the VPCC. In the end, only four of the center grants were awarded. "It was an extensive exercise," he said. "One copy of our application weighed five pounds. We had to make 31 copies. And ours was probably not unusual in its size."

The Prostate Cancer Center grant brings together a number of researchers with precise expertise but whose work had not previously focused on prostate cancer, said Matusik said. "This center grant is the cornerstone of our work in prostate cancer to be recognized as an area of research expertise at Vanderbilt," Matusik said. "I see this center as a starting point to give us a critical mass of people concentrating efforts on this very important disease."

His colleagues in the grant include Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center director Dr. Harold Moses, Benjamin F. Byrd Professor of Oncology, whose work focuses on the effects of turning the growth inhibitory factor TGFb "on and off" in normal prostates, and Dr. Robert Coffey, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research, whose work focuses on the effects of TGFa, a factor that stimulates cell growth.

Matusik's work with co-investigator Susan Kasper, Ph.D., research assistant professor in Urologic Surgery, focuses on the role of the TBFb pathway in the progression of prostate cancer to a stage where tumor growth is unaffected by therapy that blocks hormones called androgens. Their earlier work developed a new transgenic mouse model for prostate cancer, which will be utilized in these studies.

In addition, Scott Shappell, M.D., Ph.D, assistant professor of Pathology, is leader of the project's pathology core resource. "His role is very important to help us determine if what we're seeing in the mouse is really relevant in the human," Matusik said.

Matusik said he is hopeful that the center's work will expand in the future to include more people, capture more funding and move from the bench to the bedside with translational research. "This push for more prostate cancer research funding is a golden opportunity for Vanderbilt and for prostate cancer patients," he said.

"I'm very optimistic about the progress that I expect we'll see over the next five to 10 years."