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Can she outsmart a gene? Young scientist strives to influence prostate cancer cells

Once prostate cancer spreads, treatment usually includes hormones known as androgen deprivation therapy.

“This shuts down testosterone production, which is effective for a while but associated with big quality-of-life costs,” explains Rebecca Sager, a fourth-year MD/PhD student at Upstate who recently received a Young Investigator Award from Rockland Inc., a Pennsylvania biotechnology company.

Rebecca Sager

Rebecca Sager

Men taking hormones for metastatic prostate cancer report declines in general health, sex drive and overall physical function, increased body fat and erectile dysfunction. Improving survival is important, but so is learning how to minimize the side effects of treatment.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, with one in seven men likely to be diagnosed in his lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. It‘s the second leading cause of cancer death in men, behind lung cancer. Hormone therapy is usually prescribed for men with metastatic prostate cancer that cannot be cured with surgery or radiation.

Sager‘s $4,000 prize will go toward furthering her research into molecular changes associated with this type of prostate cancer. She has worked for two years in the laboratory of Leszek Kotula, MD, PhD, an associate professor of urology and biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate.

In the Kotula laboratory, Sager examines the role of genetic alterations in the WAVE protein complex in prostate cancers that progresses despite hormone therapy. The WAVE complex, which includes tumor suppressor gene ABI1, is important for cell adhesion, shape and migration.

Sager‘s goal is to help design and purify an antibody against ABI1 that works better than others that are already available for use in her research. She wants to understand what causes hormone therapy to fail in some patients. Ultimately she would like to find biomarkers that could identify the men with the highest-risk disease -- so they could receive the most aggressive treatment.

spring 16 cancer magThis article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine