GlycoNet scientist discusses novel biomarkers that aim to revolutionize care for prostate cancer patients

By Anushka Jayasuriya & Chardelle Prevatt – June 23, 2017

Prostate cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canadian men, is currently screened using the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) serum test. However, in 30% of cases, PSA is elevated for reasons other than prostate cancer; as a result, prostate cancer is also the most over-treated cancer. The high incidence of false positive screens for prostate cancer have presented major hurdles to clinicians, leading to many unnecessary, costly, and invasive prostate biopsies.  GlycoNet researcher Dr. Hon Leong, of Western University, is working on a technology to address this problem.

“For the last 15 years, patients have been submitted to surgical removal of the prostate, which we are now realizing is often unnecessary. We have the potential, with our technology, to prevent them from undergoing this radical therapy when it is not needed,” said Dr. Hon Leong. “Removing the prostate is a significant procedure, and a lot of these men have associated harmful side effects such as incontinence. Our biomarker technology will allow us to prevent over-treatment by directing resources properly to the right patients at the right time.”

Dr. Hon Leong and his postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Karla Williams, proposes to use circulating tumour cell fragments, known as microparticles, as biomarkers to identify patients that present with intermediate-to-high risk prostate cancer. Using a combination of affinity reagents against the proteins and glycans carried by the microparticles, Dr. Hon Leong’s team can characterize the microparticles in patient plasma samples. This technology will allow clinicians to develop a more rigorous treatment plan, and in turn minimize the overtreatment of prostate cancer, by knowing to what stage the disease has progressed. With a more accurate understanding of the required treatment and outcomes, patients and healthcare providers are faced with decreased hospital follow-ups, fewer unnecessary invasive procedures, and consequently increased economic and quality of life benefits.

“GlycoNet provides the resources to get this technology into the hands of clinicians,” said Dr. Hon Leong. “The Network has been pivotal in terms of helping us to realize the commercial applications of our inventions while connecting us with other experts regarding the underlying biology and biomarker mechanisms. If we were to do this in isolation, we would not have been able to get as far as we’ve gotten at this point in time.”

Dr. Leong also sees initiatives such as these paving the way for a promising future in glycomics-based therapies. “Glycomics, for the past 20 years, at least in oncology, has been ignored and dormant. It is now making a comeback. We’re quickly realizing that glycomics is representing a whole new range of biomarkers that informs clinicians of how to better treat their patients,” added Dr. Leong. “Genomics has played a significant role in new treatments in the past, and then there has been an ebb and flow in output. I really see a similar path for glycomics. We will see people wondering about the things funded by GlycoNet, and then asking how carbohydrates play a role in their own research. I think we are about to see a real renaissance in glycomics research.”

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