Rising Star eyes new weapons against prostate cancer

Paul Mayne // Western News

Pathology and Laboratory Medicine professor Hon Leong recently received a Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC)/Movember Rising Star Grant, his second in less than four years. Funded by the Movember Foundation, and selected by PCC, Leong will receive $450,000 over three years.

Deeming his latest research a “high-risk, high-reward” venture, Hon Leong is confident its findings just might halt the devastating spread of prostate cancer.

The Pathology and Laboratory Medicine professor is looking to determine the effectiveness of three separate drugs he has confirmed to be resilient in stopping metastasis (the spreading of cancer in the body), with the goal of representing a new class of therapies for the treatment of patients with advanced prostate cancer. For his efforts, he has received a Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC)/Movember Rising Star Grant, his second in less than four years.

Now in its fourth year, the Rising Star award recognizes outstanding new prostate cancer researchers and supports their pursuit of groundbreaking research. Funded by the Movember Foundation, and selected by PCC, Leong will receive $450,000 over three years.

“We want to translate drugs to the clinic,” said Leong, who narrowed the potential life-saving drugs to three, down from 22. “We have a small list of drugs that seem to stop metastasis, or the spread of cancer. These drugs could be transformative because metastasis is the main cause of death in prostate cancer patients. Preventing further spread could significantly improve overall survival.”

Leong’s lab, located at St. Joseph’s Hospital, will seek to determine which of the three drugs works the best, in hopes a single drug will emerge to be evaluated in a first-in-human clinical trial. While there is currently no way to stop the primary cancer cells from attempting to set up shop elsewhere in the body, Leong said his job is to make their arrival in the bones – where 90 per cent of prostate cancer cells migrate to – as uninhabitable as possible.

This is arguably the greatest challenge facing prostate cancer patients and their caregivers, he added. Once prostate cancer spreads to bone, it can be associated with extreme pain and is usually associated with a poor prognosis.

“We haven’t figured out ways to prevent the cancer cells from leaving the primary site, but we have figured out ways, when it actually arrives, to prevent it from getting across to where it wants to go. We’re not letting it seed a new place. We’re preventing further spread. There might be a first set of metastasis, but if we can freeze more metastasis, then we could really extend overall survival rates, so you don’t die from prostate cancer.”

Leong describes his initial Rising Star grant, in 2013, as a turning point in his career. The funding enabled his work in developing two separate blood tests for prostate cancer screening and prognostication. Described as ‘liquid biopsies,’ the tests are being evaluated currently in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

“Canada will now be recognized internationally for these tools,” he said, adding PSA tests can be misleading and lead to unnecessary biopsies. “Fragments come off the tumour and are being released into the blood. With these tests, the blood can be analyzed to determine if the cancer is getting worse. We are sending too many men to get biopsies done. Wouldn’t it be great to have a blood test that only looked for life threatening cancer?”

Leong acknowledges Prostate Cancer Canada and Movember Canada for their financial support – totalling almost $1 million all together. He is “blown away” to be receiving the award for a second time, adding the backing has singlehandedly started his lab’s translational and basic science efforts.

“They have accelerated this by decades as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

The Movember Foundation is a global charity raising funds and awareness for men’s health. Since 2003, millions have joined the men’s health movement, raising more than $750 million and funding over 1,000 projects, in 21 countries, focusing on prostate cancer, testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity.