A New Era in Prostate Cancer Treatment

OHSU's prostate cancer team at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

OHSU Extra, Summer 2013

New therapies developed at OHSU, with the help of donors, are beginning to tame a cancer that claims 32,000 lives a year in the U.S.

When Terry Page learned in 2010 that he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer, he soon discovered how lucky he was to face that diagnosis here and now. In the past decade, there’s been an explosion of new knowledge about what makes prostate cancer tick and how to stop the clock on its progress. Before 2010 only one drug, docetaxel chemotherapy, had been shown to improve survival for advanced prostate cancer patients and was approved by the FDA. Since then, five life-extending drugs have been approved and added to doctors’ arsenals. The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute helped develop four of these new treatments. During the course of his treatment, Page, now 61, joined the many OHSU patients, researchers, physicians and donors who are working together to forge a new era of progress in treating prostate cancer. 

Patient Terry Page (left) participated in a clinical trial led by Christopher Amling, M.D.

Clinical trials offer new hope

“The opportunities before us are greater than they’ve ever been,” said Tomasz Beer, M.D., deputy director of the Knight Cancer Institute and the Grover C. Bagby Endowed Chair for Prostate Cancer Research. That’s welcome news to the approximately 238,000 U.S. men diagnosed each year with the disease.

Today, for instance, the Knight Cancer Institute’s researchers and physicians are developing and testing promising new approaches focused on extending life for patients whose cancer has spread beyond the prostate. Among them is the use of an immunotherapy drug to supercharge the body’s natural defenses. This tactic is advancing thanks to the participation of Page and others in a clinical trial to see if revving a patient’s immune system before surgery helps zap remaining or previously undetected cancer cells in men with localized tumors. Page’s doctor, Christopher Amling, M.D., chairman of the OHSU Department of Urology and holder of the John Barry Chair for Urology, leads OHSU’s participation in the trial.

Terry Page received three drug infusions prior to his surgery. “The opportunity to participate in a clinical trial that could help me and future patients was a win-win,” he said. Such trials put promising ideas to the test and advance new drug treatments toward FDA approval.

The immunotherapy study in which Page participated was part of a much larger program of clinical trials (currently numbering 11) that distinguishes the Knight Cancer Institute as a leader in prostate cancer research, offering new hope to many.

Philanthropy fuels discovery

Amling and Beer both believe that today’s advances point to a time when prostate cancer will change from a disease that cuts short many men’s lives to a manageable condition. “And when that day comes,” said Beer, “philanthropy will have played a crucial role.”

For the Knight’s cancer experts, private support is powerful because it gives exceptional people resources they need to achieve major advances in research. “We need our best and brightest to swing for the fences,” said Beer. “And when they have a base of support behind them, they’re able to swing the bat harder.”

Beer holds an endowed chair established with seed funding from donors Cecil and Sally Drinkward and Bill and Karen Early, who issued a fundraising challenge to raise $2.5 million in private gifts for this chair. The Drinkwards characterized their gift as an investment in brainpower.

"Talent, like capital, is portable and you have to compete for it. We wanted to help OHSU compete and win for some of the best cancer minds anywhere.”

- Cecil Drinkward, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute donor

Research forges the path

The brightest minds are needed to pursue the most innovative avenues in research, such as the recent break-through by physician-researcher Joshi Alumkal, M.D., whose work has been supported by the Wayne D. Kuni and Joan E. Kuni Foundation, Wayne and Joan Kingsley, Platt Electric, Bruce Burns, and the Burns Family Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation. “Everyone in my family agrees. Our investment in Dr. Alumkal and his team is important to our family and to the community. We are fortunate to have Dr. Alumkal and his team right here in our back yard,” said Bruce Burns.

Alumkal discovered that two proteins involved in prostate cancer – AR and c-Myc – cooperate to allow prostate cancers to grow even after hormonal therapy has reduced or eliminated the testosterone that traditionally fuels the cancer’s growth. The Kuni Foundation recently awarded Alumkal additional funding to continue this investigation, and Alumkal is actively pursuing an innovative treatment strategy to shut down AR and c-Myc in prostate cancer.

“It’s an incredible challenge and honor to be able to pursue this work,” said Alumkal. “I’m reminded every Tuesday afternoon, when I see patients in the clinic, just how precious life is – and how life is until further notice. Philanthropy plays an essential role in our research and enables us to test high-risk ideas that may lead to improved quality and quantity of life for prostate cancer patients.”

This year Beer was selected as a leader of one of the nation’s best known and most promising prostate cancer initiatives – the “Dream Team” project funded by Stand Up to Cancer, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and the American Association for Cancer Research – in which a team of researchers from across the country will investigate how treatment-resistant tumors manage to thwart existing therapies and uncover new pathways into patients’ cells. The “Dream Team” also includes OHSU researchers Alumkal and George Thomas, M.D., who will focus on experiments in the laboratory to determine how cancer cells do an end run around current treatments. Their work aims to develop new tests to identify treatment resistance early on and new therapies to help overcome it.

Now more than ever

The role that philanthropy plays in advancing such promising research is more critical than ever in the age of budget sequestration. The tightening of federal research dollars means that major funders such as the National Cancer Institute are significantly reducing funding – and constraining the types of research that receive support.

“It’s just human nature that people and institutions tend to take less risk during times when resources are scarce. They’re looking for assurance. That favors the proposals that advance science in incremental steps,” said Beer.  “But breakthroughs don’t always happen by slowly nudging knowledge down the road. It’s often the higher-stakes endeavor that produces the greatest leap forward. Private philanthropy helps us take those leaps.”  

How you can help

The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute team’s groundbreaking investigators are helping transform prostate cancer research and care. To continue to make these types of discoveries possible, private support is critical to provide exceptional faculty with the resources they need to succeed. For example, one of the program’s philanthropic priorities is to secure $1 million to create an endowed professorship in support of Joshi Alumkal, M.D. For information on how you can support OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute’s prostate cancer program, contact Rachel Stroud Hunsinger at 503 494-8342 or hunsinge@ohsu.edu.