Starving cancer and other stories

Australian science stories, Bulletins, Media bulletins, Oz Research of Note

Prostate cancers are made up of hungry, growing cells. Now we’ve discovered how to cut off their food supply thanks to a study published in Cancer Research and supported by Movember. More below.

Also Australian science discoveries you may have missed from the past week.

Researchers at the Centenary Institute in Sydney have discovered a potential future treatment for prostate cancer—through starving the tumour cells of an essential nutrient they need to grow rapidly.

Their work, using human cells grown in the lab, reveals targets for drugs that could slow the progress of early- and late-stage prostate cancer. The research has been funded by the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia (PCFA) and Movember.

Each year about 3300 Australian men die of prostate cancer. It’s Australia’s second worst cancer killer for men, matching the impact of breast cancer on women.

Current therapies for prostate cancer include surgical removal of the prostate, radiation, freezing the tumour or cutting off the supply of the hormone testosterone—but there are often side-effects of these treatments, including incontinence and impotence.

Growing cells need an essential nutrient, the amino acid called leucine, which is pumped into the cell by specialised proteins. And this could be prostate cancer’s weak link.

Dr Jeff Holst and his team at the Centenary Institute found, in a study to be published this month in Cancer Research, that prostate cancer cells have more pumps than normal. This allows the cancer cells to take in more leucine and outgrow normal cells.

“This information allows us to target the pumps – and we’ve tried two routes. We found that we could disrupt the uptake of leucine firstly by reducing the amount of the protein pumps, and secondly by introducing a drug that competes with leucine. Both approaches slowed cancer growth, in essence ‘starving’ the cancer cells,” Jeff says.

By targeting different sets of pumps, first author Dr Qian Wang says, the researchers were able to slow tumour growth in both the early and late stages of prostate cancer. “In some of the experiments, we were able to slow tumour growth by as much as 50 per cent. Our hope is that we could develop a treatment that slows the growth of the cancer so that it would not require surgical removal. If animal trials are successful over the next few years then clinical trials could start in as little as five years,” he says.

One of the other spin-offs of the discovery, Jeff says, is a better understanding of the links between prostate cancer and eating foods high in leucine. “Diets high in red meat and dairy are correlated with prostate cancer, but no one really understands why.  We have already begun examining whether these pumps can explain the links between diet and prostate cancer.”

“Given one in nine men in Australia may develop prostate cancer in their lifetime, this discovery could touch thousands of lives.”

The publication of the study comes just in time for Movember, a month-long charity drive in which thousands of men around the globe grow moustaches to raise money for men’s health issues including prostate cancer.

“This fundamental research tells us more about how prostate and other cancers grow, and will open the way for new treatments in the long term,” says Movember chairman Paul Villanti.

“Movember is now one of the largest non-government global funders of prostate cancer research. We strongly support innovative targeted research that leads to significantly improved clinical tests and treatments to reduce the burden of prostate cancer.  It’s great to see the progress that Dr Holst and his team have made with the support of a Movember Young Investigator grant.”

PCFA and Movember have been working together since 2004 to reduce the impact of prostate cancer on Australian men and their loved ones.

PCFA CEO Dr Anthony Lowe says a huge priority for the PCFA’s grants program is research that has the potential to reduce the impact of prostate cancer on those who are diagnosed with it. “We commend the team at the Centenary Institute on the remarkable progress they are making in this regard.”

“This is part of a body of work that is investigating the very nature of cancer and opening up new avenues for cancer treatment,” says Centenary Institute executive director Professor Mathew Vadas.

For the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia: or contact Amy Medcalf,, +61 (434) 437 867.

Oz research of note, 30 October, 2011

Here’s a list of science papers from the past week that you may have missed. Many of Australia’s science discoveries are never seen by the media or the public because the researchers don’t have communication support or just because their research comes out on a big news day. So, we’re testing interest in a list of what grabbed our attention in the past week.

  1. An international team involving Monash researchers has developed the first stem-cell derived cardiac cells for studying heart disease in a dish —   — Dr David Elliott, and Profs Andrew Elefanty and Ed Stanley, Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories (Nature Methods and Nature Biotechnology)
  2. The secret of how birds zip flawlessly through narrow spaces without crashing into obstacles has been unlocked by Australian scientists. The discovery could be used to design ‘bird-safe’ buildings and windmills, and improve the versatility of pilotless aircraft. —  — Prof Mandyam Srinivasan, The Vision Centre and The University of Queensland (Current Biology)
  3. Researchers at the University of Melbourne have proven that a modified shoe can reduce knee load in people with knee osteoarthritis. — — Prof Kim Bennell, Centre for Health, Exercise and Sports Medicine, University of Melbourne
  4. A PERTH study has found that yoghurt may be beneficial in reducing heart disease — — Kerry Ivey, Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital, Perth (American Society for Nutrition)
  5. Young people at risk of depression are more likely to listen habitually and repetitively to heavy metal music. —  — Dr Katrina McFerran, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
  6. An international team of biologists including an Australian has reorganised the molluscs by showing that monoplacophorans—shelled limpet-like creatures in very deep water known as living fossils—are closely related to octopus – – Dr Nerida Wilson, Australian Museum. (Nature)
  7. Letter against the shark culls and for non-lethal alternatives: Over 100 academics and professionals in the shark and ray field have signed the letter. In addition, a petition from the public has already collected over 5000 signatures. Contact: Barbara Wueringer, Research Associate, School of Animal Biology, University of Western Australia and Adjunct Research Associate, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University. Barbara was a 2011 Fresh Scientist.
  8. Australian scientists have played a key role in the identification of a new biochemical mechanism that allows brain tumours to survive and grow, offering hope of new drug treatments for some of the most aggressive tumours — — A/Prof Gilles Guillemin, UNSW (Nature)
  9. A Synchrotron study reveals how natural killer cells are shut down by a group of proteins found on healthy cells, an international team has found. These de-activating proteins, known as Human Leukocyte Antigens or HLA molecules are absent in many tumours and cells infected with viruses, leaving them open to attack by the Natural Killer cells. — — Prof Jamie Rossjohn,  Monash University and A/Prof Andrew Brooks, University of Melbourne (Nature)
  10. RESEARCHERS from UWA and the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) have been involved with identifying five novel schizophrenia loci (chromosomal regions) by studying common genetic variation using studies. The authors speculate that this variation (SNP) in MIR137 could contribute to brain development abnormalities in patients with schizophrenia — — (Nature Genetics)
  11. One of Sydney’s major urban waterways – the Cooks River – is at times an “open sewer” carrying effluent containing pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, researchers have found. The work has sparked calls for urgent action to clean it up. — — Dr Stuart Khan, Water Research Centre (WRC), UNSW
  12. Groups of male dolphins who put aside their sexual competitiveness and form alliances with each other to seek out and reproduce with females have better reproductive success than males who go it alone. — — Jo Wiszniewski, Macquarie (Journal of Animal Ecology)
  13. The crown of the famous 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx fossil as the first bird has been restored by a new evolutionary tree. Australian researchers say the feathered fossil is indeed of the first known bird, despite another study earlier this year suggesting otherwise. — — Dr Michael Lee, South Australian Museum and Dr Trevor Worthy, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW (Biology Letters)
  14. Scientists have identified the genetic blueprint of the giant intestinal roundworm, Ascaris suum, revealing potential targets to control the devastating parasitic disease, ascariasis which affects more than one billion people in China, South East Asia, South America and parts of Africa, killing thousands of people annually and causing chronic effects in young children. — — Dr Aaron Jex and Prof Robin Gasser, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Melbourne (Nature)
  15. Multiple mating – or polyandry – is beneficial for females, according to researchers at The University of Western Australia ina world-first experimental evolutionary study.– — Dr Renee Firman, University of Western Australia (Ecology Letters)
  16. A new study has found that the warming ocean climate is causing seaweed communities, on which fauna survive, to retreat to the brink of the continent and possibly extinction. — — A/Prof Thomas Wernberg, Oceans Institute, The University of Western Australia (Current Biology)
  17. Users of heroin and other addictive opioids may be spared from distressing withdrawal symptoms in the future. In an article just published in Nature Neuroscience the researchers describe for the first time a protein in nerve cells that drives the withdrawal response. – – Dr Elena Bagley, Prof MacDonald Christie, Pharmacology, University of Sydney, and Brain and Mind Research Institute. (Nature Neuroscience)