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Researchers Awarded $1 Million to Study Optimal Use of Radioactive Drugs for Prostate Cancer Therapy

Dr. Scott Tagawa. Photo credit: Walling McGarity

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine, in collaboration with investigators at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, have been awarded a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) for prostate cancer clinical trials.

Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men. The DoD’s Prostate Cancer Research Program Clinical Consortium Award funds research that aims to eliminate prostate cancer deaths and enhance the well-being of men diagnosed with the disease. Awardees join a national consortium comprised of 13 leading academic medical centers that are conducting clinical and translational prostate cancer research.

The investigators will use the grant to support research into an experimental therapy that combines a radioactive atom with a molecule that seeks and destroys cancer cells. This technique, called targeted radionuclide therapy, delivers radiation directly to the cancer cells to destroy them.

“We’ve done a lot of this work over 15 years and some patients respond really well, some patients don't respond at all and others are in the middle,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Scott Tagawa, the Richard A. Stratton Associate Professor in Hematology and Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine and medical director of the genitourinary oncology program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “This grant will support research into how we can determine, prior to treatment or shortly after, who will respond and who won’t.”

The therapy targets a protein that is present in 85 to 90 percent of prostate cancers, called prostate-specific membrane antigen (PSMA). The goal is that cancer cells containing PSMA take up the radionuclide and are destroyed by the radiation. PSMA radionuclide therapy is mostly being studied as a treatment for prostate cancer that has spread and not responded to hormonal therapy.

The team, which includes co-principal investigators Dr. Neil Bander, the Bernard and Josephine Chaus Professor of Urological Oncology and a member of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Himisha Beltran of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, will focus on several approaches for identifying which patients are most likely to respond to the treatment. The first is looking at prostate cancer tumor genes from past and present patients to try to identify genomic changes that might predict outcomes. They will also look at PET scan images of PSMA in men both before and after treatment, as well as clinical parameters such as age and location of metastatic tumors, to see if there are factors that correlate to response to treatment. In addition, as research at Weill Cornell Medicine and other institutions points towards radiation’s effect on the immune system, Dr. Tagawa’s group is analyzing immune markers in blood and tumor cells to see if they correlate to patient outcomes.

“This DoD award helps us address the challenges of developing new treatments, which are desperately needed, for resistant prostate cancer,” said Dr. Tagawa, who is also an associate professor of clinical medicine and of clinical urology and a member of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, and an expert consultant to various commercial entities relating to prostate cancer.

“My hope is that our work can identify which patients would most benefit from PSMA-targeted radionucleotide therapy and results in it being approved as a treatment for prostate cancer in the next one to three years,” he said.  

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