For the estimated 21,000 Canadian men diagnosed with prostate cancer annually, the answer to potential treatments may soon be as simple as a urine test, according to one Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry graduate student.
Medical Biophysics graduate student TianDuo Wang is working on “the Holy Grail for cancer detection” – a protein detectable in urine that allows doctors to spot the presence of prostate cancer cells earlier in order to better direct patient treatment.
“Right now, we’re able to diagnose patients. But once you have prostate cancer, it has a good range in lethality, meaning not every individual who has prostate cancer is going to end up suffering from the consequences of that tumour,” Wang said. “There’s a common saying: It’s oftentimes that you die with prostate cancer and not from prostate cancer.”
Currently, doctors use a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test to check for prostate cancer. If elevated antigen levels are discovered in the test, a prostate biopsy is usually the next step to confirm the cancer’s presence.
But that comes with its own issues, Wang said.
“A biopsy is invasive and already comes with a lot of side effects. We’re trying to minimize that, if we can. We suspect you already have prostate cancer, but here then is more information as to whether that tumour is aggressive or not, without requiring the biopsy.”
A diagnosis often leads to immediate treatment, as there are not many good tools to determine if the tumour is aggressive or not, Wang added. “A lot of men are suffering the consequences of treatment that they may not have been benefiting from to begin with.”
In his Robarts Research Institute lab, Wang is using DNA molecules that encode the cancer with instructions to produce a protein easily found in urine. When injecting it into the body, it is silent in normal cells, but activated in cancer cells.
Wang added his research is not necessarily about determining cancer staging, rather more about characterization, trying to figure out what the eventual prognosis may be and determining what the next treatment step should be.
While still in its early stages – Wang has only been working towards this goal for just over a year – the project is producing early results.
“I’ll let it come when it comes. I’m kind of focused on the now, not what it could be,” he said. “The thing I like about grad school is being the boss of your own project. Sure you have a supervisor and a committee, but it’s kind of your baby and it’s up to you, and your motivation, to carry the project out.
“It’s good to know you may make a small impact. That’s what every researcher is about – making those small impacts. That’s what I hope to do.”