Nicholas Cosford, Ph.D., researches prostate cancer—while he experiences it. “Yes, I’ve got a real connection to cancer and cancer patients,” he says. “When you go for radiation treatment 39 straight days, you talk to a lot of cancer patients and become part of a unique community.”
Cosford, a professor and associate director of Translational Research in our NCI-designated Cancer Center, was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009 and treated with surgery. “I was fortunate,” he says. “Although screening for prostate cancer generally begins at age 50, my primary physician began monitoring my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) levels at age 40. I was 46 when the cancer was found.”
The PSA test measures blood levels of a protein produced by the prostate. In general, the higher a man’s PSA level, the more likely it is that he has prostate cancer.
After the surgery, Cosford was essentially cancer-free, until he wasn’t. “Earlier this year, they saw a slight increase in my PSA, which meant that the cancer was still present.” Radiation targeted the areas immediately adjacent to where the tumor had been. “The treatments are incredibly precise,” he explains, “and I experienced few side effects, other than fatigue.”
A family affair
Two rounds with cancer haven’t dampened his active lifestyle. He and his wife, Rebecca, an analytical chemist, and their two teens are avid hikers and campers. Since 2009, the family has backpacked 800 miles, climbed Mt. Whitney and rafted whitewater rivers. Cosford says their adventures have created strong, resilient human beings.
“My family adventures have occasionally left us in some precarious situations. Nicholas Cosford, Ph.D. When you’re somewhere that you can’t be rescued,” he says, “you have to rely on yourself—and if you’re lucky, you have a team. In my personal life my family is my team, but as I work to confront cancer on a professional level, I rely on my research team.”
A commitment to teamwork and a real understanding of what cancer patients experience make Nicholas Cosford a particularly tenacious researcher. His lab is targeting autophagy, a cellular process of degrading old, damaged cell membranes and proteins that tumor cells use to generate nutrients to grow and survive.
“Cancer cells are on a mission to proliferate rapidly, and that takes energy,” says Cosford. “By blocking autophagy with inhibitors, we can promote tumor cell death. There are a number of autophagy inhibitors in preclinical and ongoing clinical studies, and we are looking at these types of drugs to enhance chemosensitivity and tumor regression.”
A promising discovery
“In a partnership with Reuben Shaw, Ph.D., professor at the Salk Institute, we have developed a prototype drug, SBI-0206965, that blocks the firs step of autophagy, effectivel cutting o the recycled nutrients that cancer cells need to live,” he adds. “SBI-0206965 targets an enzyme called ULK1 that kick-starts autophagy, and we have shown that it works in human and mouse lung cancer and human brain cancer cells. We are expanding the research into other cancer types with a particular focus on prostate and pancreatic tumors.”
At the same time, his team is digging more deeply into currently approved drugs—“those that could be realistically used tomorrow”—looking for untried combinations that might prove effectiv for individual patients. More acutely than many, Cosford understands that men with prostate cancer need effectiv new therapies now. “Great advances have been made and will continue to be made,” he predicts. Taking into consideration the personal motivation and tenacity of this patient-scientist, progress is in sight.
Facts about prostate cancer
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men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetimes
≈ 3 million
men are living with prostate cancer in the U.S.
will die from prostate cancer in 2016
leading cause of male cancer behind lung cancer
Source: American Cancer Society