Hitting the sweet spot: how sugars on cancer cells could lead to better diagnosis and treatment of aggressive prostate cancer

Glycans are groups of sugars on the outside of, and secreted by, prostate cancer cells that Dr Munkley thinks can be exploited to improve diagnosis and treatment of aggressive disease. She has already shown that the system for making these sugar groups and adding them to the cell (called glycosylation) is turned on by Androgen Receptor signaling and turned off by prostate cancer treatment, and that the proteins responsible for glycosylation are essential for prostate cancer cell survival. Now she wants to take this knowledge a step further.

She wants to understand why this is the case, by seeing what prostate cancer cell functions are affected by either adding more, or taking away, these sugar groups. The scientists will look for changes like which other genes are switched on and off, whether it changes how or when the cell produces certain proteins, whether it changes the cells’ ability to attach to surfaces, to move or to divide. They will also inject these sugar-group modified cells into mice to see how it affects the tumour’s ability to grow and spread in a whole-body system.

Dr Munkley’s next step will be to use these mouse models of prostate cancer to see whether drugs that block this glycosylation process, which have already been developed for other cancers, change the cancer’s ability to grow and spread. If they do, this has potential to be a new avenue to explore for prostate cancer treatment.

Finally, Dr Munkley wants to look at prostate biopsies as well as blood and urine samples from prostate cancer patients to see if there is a pattern to when and where different sugar groups are expressed on, or secreted by, prostate cancer cells, and whether this differs between men with harmful and not harmful prostate cancers. This could lead to a new way to identify which men have harmful disease that needs to be treated at the point of diagnosis, and which men can safely avoid treatment.

Grant information 

Reference - RIA16-ST2-011
Researcher - Dr Jennifer Munkley
Institution – Newcastle University
Award - £346,676.00