Treating the incurable: WSU researcher makes strides in prostate cancer research

Originally published in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences 2019 Annual Report

Boyang (Jason) Wu
Boyang (Jason) Wu

In 2019 alone, there will be an estimated 174,650 new cases of prostate cancer. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men and approximately one man in 41 will die of prostate cancer.

Dr. Boyang (Jason) Wu, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, wants to change that. After researching prostate cancer for nearly a decade, Wu is devising new strategies to treat incurable forms of the disease.

“Although prostate cancer affects a large population of men, we still lack therapies that treat the most lethal forms of prostate cancer,” said Wu.

The current most common treatment for prostate cancer is hormone therapy, which mediates the effect of hormones linked to prostate cancer, such as testosterone, in the body. While these initial treatments are very effective, the cancer often progresses into the terminal stage of the disease known as castration resistance. Castration-resistant prostate cancer continues to grow despite very low levels of testosterone in the system. This form of the disease is extremely aggressive and leads to the death of over 30,000 men every year in the U.S.

The castration-resistant stage of the disease is treated with more aggressive hormone therapies but can rapidly develop a resistance to those therapies as well until it becomes neuroendocrine prostate cancer. According to Wu, neuroendocrine prostate cancer is when the disease progresses to the very lethal stage.

Currently, there is no effective treatment for neuroendocrine prostate cancer, and the life expectancy of patients suffering from this deadly disease is approximately seven months.
However, Wu’s latest research has revealed that when prostate cancer develops to this point the cells begin to mimic nerve cells. Wu believes this phenomenon, called neuromimicry, allows the cancer cells to become more aggressive.

“Targeting neuromimicry means we have a new way to treat late stage prostate cancer—and at the moment, there are no options to treat late stage prostate cancer,” said Wu.

By mimicking nerve cells, the cancer cells interact with true nerve cells, meaning the cancer can spread through nerves to other parts of the body. This mimicry also allows the cancer cells to survive treatment because they no longer express the biomarkers being targeted by treatment.

Now, with funding from a new three year $500,000 grant from the US Department of Defense, Wu will further work to understand neuromimicry in the hopes of targeting neuronal genes and prolonging patient survival.

“Because neuromimicry is a novel concept, maybe we can develop new ways to treat late stage prostate cancer and other cancers such as pancreatic and gastric cancers which have similar neuromimicry patterns,” Wu said.