From biodefense to prostate cancer offense

05/04/04

Department of Defense funds novel research at UC Davis Cancer Center

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: (SACRAMENTO, Calif.) -- Two molecular geneticists at the UC Davis Cancer Center have won $1.1 million in grants to turn biodefense technology into a new prostate cancer offense. The grants were awarded by the U.S. Department of Defense Prostate Cancer Research Program.

Paul Gumerlock, professor of hematology/oncology, received a three-year, $557,000 grant to test a new gene-silencing method, developed last summer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Gumerlock will use the new method to silence certain DNA repair genes in prostate cancer cells. By doing so, he hopes to make the cancer cells more vulnerable to radiation therapy.

Philip Mack, a research geneticist, received a three-year, $334,000 grant to test the same gene-silencing method, known as siHybrid technology, against certain mutations of the p53 tumor suppressor gene. Mack will test whether silencing the mutations can help to prevent androgen independence, a poorly understood process that renders prostate cancer untreatable.

"Preventing or delaying the emergence of androgen independence, and perhaps even reversing it after it has occurred, would provide new treatment options and greatly impact overall patient survival," Mack says.

Gumerlock also received a second, 18-month grant for $111,000 to exploit two other biodefense technologies fresh from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. One is a method of affixing cell-free DNA fragments to chips of glass, so the fragile fragments can be examined without being damaged. The other is a technique, known as in situ rolling circle amplification, which allows minute DNA fragments to be detected in the bloodstream with much greater sensitivity than previous methods.

Using the new techniques, Gumerlock intends to develop a blood test that can detect methylated, or deactivated, gene sequences common in prostate cancers. Methylation is a process commonly used by cancer cells to shut down tumor-suppressor genes and other genes responsible for ensuring orderly cell turnover. Along the way, bits of DNA from the methylated genes are released into the bloodstream.

Gumerlock hopes the test will be more sensitive than the PSA blood test now used to detect prostate cancer. The PSA test measures levels of prostate-specific antigen, a protein produced by prostate tumors.

"Earlier detection will allow more prompt treatment and should increase survival of cancer patients," Gumerlock says.

The Lawrence Livermore technologies were developed by Allen Christian, a chemical engineer at the national laboratory, for use in combating bioterrorist attacks.

UC Davis Cancer Center and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory forged a formal cancer research partnership, the first such alliance between a major cancer research center and a national laboratory, in November 2000.

"Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, biodefense research has taken on new urgency," says Ralph deVere White, professor and chair of urology at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center and director of the UC Davis Cancer Center. "We intend to make sure cancer research reaps the collateral benefits."

DeVere White is a past chair of the U.S. Department of Defense Integrated Panel for Prostate Cancer Research Program, an advisory body that helps to administer some $85 million in federal grants for prostate cancer each year.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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