Dr. Bharati Bapat, a molecular geneticist with Mount Sinai’s Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, was recently awarded a research grant from the Movember Global Scientific Committee that will enable her team to continue identifying biomarkers for prostate cancer that will predict which patients will develop more aggressive tumours, with the goal of offering targeted treatment as early as possible.
The Movember GAP1
research award is awarded to top prostate cancer researchers around the world and facilitates global research collaboration. The goal of the Movember GAP1 initiative is to develop a urine-based test incorporating a combination of biomarkers tested through a global consortium of selected prostate cancer researchers.
With this award, Dr. Bapat will continue a two-year project studying DNA methylation signals, a naturally occurring process that can cause a potentially reversible change in a gene. It determines which genes are turned ‘on’ or ‘off’ in each cell, and thus determines the cells’ functions. Abnormal increases or decreases in DNA methylation are found in most human cancers and contribute to their development. Each tumor is expected to have its own unique pattern or “signature” of DNA methylation.
By studying DNA methylation biomarkers for prostate cancer, Dr. Bapat aims to generate new knowledge that will contribute to better and more accurate treatment therapies for prostate cancer patients.
“We are looking at not only how we can diagnose prostate cancer better, but also how we can detect aggressive tumours earlier, because we would then be able to identify and target such patients for more effective treatments much earlier in the course of cancer development,” says Dr. Bapat. “Our goal is to apply our research to clinical care, such as the development of a more specific and sensitive diagnostic test that can be administered in a non-invasive fashion, so that we can improve the efficiency with which we treat patients with prostate cancer.”
Currently, the PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) test used to diagnose patients may give false-positive or false-negative results. A false-positive test result occurs when a man’s PSA level is elevated but no cancer is actually present. A false-positive test result may create unnecessary anxiety for a man and his family and lead to additional medical procedures, such as a prostate biopsy, that can be harmful.
Dr. Bapat and her research team at the Lunenfeld have already shown that DNA methylation markers tied to prostate cancer can be detected in a urine sample, which could not only replace the need for invasive tumour biopsies, but also open the door to a world of potential in preventative medicine. Dr. Bapat’s lab is currently testing urine and blood samples to detect epigenetic signatures that will avoid (or minimize) some surgical procedures in the future.
Dr. Bapat is one of only a handful of scientists worldwide with insight into how ‘epigenetics’ influences our risk of cancer—an emerging and important new field in cancer research. The field of epigenetics examines changes in gene function that do not disrupt the underlying DNA sequence, but are instead a reversible change. Genetics, on the other hand, studies permanent mutations in genetic function.