In this guest blog, Dr Chris Armstrong  Marcher, Mo grower and ambitious researcher – explains what he hopes to achieve with the Movember funded Travelling Prize Fellowship we’ve just awarded him and how this leg up the academic career ladder will benefit men. 

30 Oct 2017

Our Travelling Prize Fellowships, funded by The Movember Foundation, help promising prostate cancer researchers make an early start in developing their independent research careers and give them a competitive advantage at the next stage.

This is important not only to maintain the ‘pipeline’ of prostate cancer expertise and to find useful and exciting results. But better still, it can give young researchers the experience they need to one day establish their own prostate cancer research group where they will nurture more young academics, investigating more research projects with more opportunities to discover exciting results.

In this guest blog, Dr Armstrong explains why this award is so important to him, what he’ll be researching and how he hopes this will benefit men with prostate cancer.

A career in cancer research – earning my place in the four per cent

Dr Armstrong: The career path for a scientific researcher is rather challenging. Generally, we do a science-based undergraduate degree followed by a PhD specialising in our area of interest. Then we enter the career phase where many of us are lost to other career choices. Only around four per cent of science graduates will make it through this phase and achieve a permanent academic research position. Less than one per cent will eventually be awarded a professorship.

I completed my PhD in prostate cancer research back in 2014 and entered a three-year postdoctoral research contract under Professor David Waugh at Queen’s University Belfast. This position was funded by Prostate Cancer UK and The Movember Foundation as part of the Belfast-Manchester Movember Centre of Excellence award. It was a particularly exciting time to be researching prostate cancer in Belfast as the funding enabled a big expansion of our expertise to tackle the disease.

At the end of my postdoctoral contract I had two options: search for another postdoctoral position or apply for funding for a research project proposal. The first option would definitely have been easier, but my ambition to be part of the four per cent who make it in this career led me to the Prostate Cancer UK Travelling Prize Fellowship.

Seattle skyline

As the name suggests, there is a travel component associated with this fellowship. Next summer I will be swapping Belfast for Seattle and undertaking a six-month secondment at the University of Washington. This will give me the chance to work alongside world-leading experts in prostate cancer research, specifically those with expertise in researching prostate cancer that has spread to the bone.

So what am I researching?

To explain where my research is going, and how the fellowship prize will help, I first need to set out what I’ve done so far. In a nutshell, all my research to date has aimed to improve the effect of radiotherapy. When men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, the majority have localised disease, meaning that the cancer is still contained within the prostate. Treatment options include surgery to remove the prostate (radical prostatectomy) and targeted radiotherapy.

My research so far has focused on potential drugs that can be used alongside radiotherapy to improve its effectiveness

Unfortunately we still can’t offer robot-assisted surgery in Belfast and many men who choose to have surgery must travel to Cambridge, resulting in an incredibly unpleasant travel experience. Many groups, including Prostate Cancer UK, are doing excellent work to challenge this. But I guess the one positive that comes out of it is that we have developed significant expertise in radiotherapy, with an excellent team of researchers and clinicians working to improve it and a number of clinical trials available to patients.

This is where I fit in. My research so far has focused on identifying potential drugs that can be used alongside radiotherapy to improve its effectiveness. This is how it works:

  1. We examine tumour samples taken from men treated with radiotherapy. We will split these into two groups: those who responded to treatment and those who failed to show a response and had disease progression. We then identify genes that are turned on or off in the men who failed to respond to radiotherapy.
  2. We investigate the how these genes protect prostate cancer cells from the killing effect of radiation. This can result in us identifying ‘protective’ proteins that are produced to prevent the cells from dying.
  3. We use drugs that specifically target these proteins to prevent the cells from developing resistance to radiotherapy.

This process can take several years but hopefully the radiotherapy-drug combination approach will be common practice in future prostate cancer treatment. In fact, we are currently in the process of opening a phase one clinical trial in Belfast to test one of the drugs identified during my PhD research. This is possible due to the continued support and funding awarded by Prostate Cancer UK. It is incredibly exciting (and a little scary) to know that a drug target I helped to identify is going to be used in men fighting this awful disease. 

Where does the Travelling Prize Fellowship award come in?

My future research plan, thanks to the fellowship award, involves trying to apply this skill-set to the more advanced stages of prostate cancer. Historically, radiation-based treatments have not been used in advanced prostate cancer. However, this is all going to change. A number of clinical trials are beginning to demonstrate the potential use of radiation in metastatic prostate cancer (cancer that has spread outside the prostate), and so it is only right that biological research also moves in this direction.

I am particularly interested in the men who are initially resistant to radiotherapy and whose cancer continues to grow. My basic idea is that treating some of these men with radiation will actually accelerate the spread of their cancer, rather than killing it. We have discovered that men with a particular genetic mutation have increased presence of immune cells within their tumour. Treating these tumours, and therefore the accompanying immune cells, with radiotherapy produces an inflammatory response that can actually trigger the cancer cells to become ‘mobile’ and spread more easily. We have a good idea of some of the proteins involved in this inflammatory response and have therefore identified some novel therapeutic targets.

Researchers in Seattle … have developed specific techniques to model prostate cancer that has spread to the bone

When prostate cancer spreads, it tends to go to the bone. This is because bone is an environment rich in growth factors that allow the cancer cells to thrive. Current clinical trials are investigating whether directly targeting these tumours in the bone with high-dose radiotherapy could work as a treatment. I want to examine what radiation does to these tumours and hopefully find ways the treatment can be improved.

This will be a major focus of my fellowship and is ultimately the reason that I chose the University of Washington. The researchers in Seattle are some of the best at experimenting on metastatic prostate cancer. They have developed specific techniques that allow us to model, in a laboratory, prostate cancer that has spread to the bone. I want to learn these techniques, before returning to Belfast and combining them with our radiation expertise to help find new ways to treat men with advanced prostate cancer.

The other cool thing I will get to do involves growing human bone fragments (from patients undergoing hip replacement surgery) in the laboratory to use alongside the prostate cancer cells we currently have. It all sounds a bit crazy, but it has been done recently by researchers at Stanford University and enabled them to investigate drugs in a much more relevant experimental setting.

As I write this, I am just over three months into my fellowship and things are starting to take shape. I am just about to start the visa process for my placement in Seattle and can’t wait to get out there.

Being part of the Prostate Cancer UK research family

Prostate Cancer UK research event

Aside from working on experiments, there are many other aspects of my research career I thoroughly enjoy, for example giving patients and the public tours of the laboratory. I have had the pleasure of meeting some incredible people and the stories men have told me about their prostate cancer experiences drive my desire to make an impact in this career.

As I get to see the benefits of fundraising on a daily basis, I also get involved in raising money for the Belfast Movember campaign and Prostate Cancer UK. I recently took part in the first March for Men in Belfast and I have been involved with the Movember fundraising committee in Belfast for four years now. This is particularly important to me because Movember funding has directly enabled Movember Centres of Excellence, like the one in Belfast, to accelerate large-scale prostate cancer research projects to a stage where men can benefit.

I am absolutely delighted to be a Prostate Cancer UK funded researcher. They have a unique ability to make their researchers feel like part of a larger family. Each year they host an event called Making Progress where we all get together to discuss our research and set up collaborations. There is a tremendous amount of talent and innovation at these meetings and it certainly looks like the future of prostate cancer research is in very good hands. Hopefully the next three years of my research will be part of this future and help to inform radiotherapy-drug combinations that men with prostate cancer can directly benefit from.

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