To improve outcomes for prostate cancer sufferers, Associate Professor Selth is searching for markers that could distinguish a ‘sleeper’ from a ‘killer’ cancer.
There is a terrible dilemma at the centre of prostate cancer treatment. In its early stages it is difficult to accurately determine whether a tumour is aggressive and potentially deadly or slow growing with little impact on quality of life.
This means many of men are either receiving treatment they don’t need, with life-limiting side effects, or not getting the more intensive treatment they need to get the best outcomes.
‘We don’t have very good tools or markers to accurately tell if a tumour is likely to be nasty and aggressive or not,’ says Associate Professor Luke Selth (BBiotech(Hons) ‘01), a researcher at Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute (FHMRI).
To overcome this issue, Associate Professor Selth is searching for markers that could distinguish a ‘sleeper’ from a ‘killer’ cancer.
Although the work is in its infancy, he says microRNAs, molecules that play a role in gene regulation, show promise.
They appear to be very good markers. You can quite clearly distinguish between different tissues and cancers by looking at the levels of microRNAs in them,’ says Associate Professor Selth.
‘But the other good thing about them is that they’re released into the bloodstream and that potentially could lead to detection with a blood test.’
The other major issue in the prostate cancer field is that once a tumour has metastasised, or spread from the prostate, it is not curable.
Current therapies are called hormonal therapies, which essentially block the activity of a protein called the androgen receptor (AR).
These therapies are often quite effective in stopping prostate cancer, but for some men this benefit is for only a short period of time. Hormonal therapies can also have very severe impacts on a patient’s quality of life.
‘The androgen receptor is a major driver of prostate cancer growth but in the normal prostate, and in lots of other tissues around the body, the androgen receptor is a “good guy” and not causing any problems,’ says Associate Professor Selth.
‘One therapeutic strategy we are investigating is whether we can promote the normal function of AR rather than blocking its activity. We think this could be more effective and do away with so many unpleasant side effects. We are also researching non-hormonal therapies, including thinking about how we could better harness a man’s own immune system.’
Associate Professor Selth was an undergraduate at Flinders University, then went to the University of Adelaide for his PhD. He moved his cancer research lab to Flinders University just 18 months ago.
‘I was drawn back by the push at Flinders to develop a very strong and vibrant culture in biomedical research,’ he says.
The relationship between Flinders Medical Centre and the University was also a big factor.
‘That to me is a big advantage. There’s a lot of interaction between researchers and clinicians at Flinders University. It really is quite a unique environment in SA. We also have access to a lot of research material thanks to the large catchment of patients.’
From the 2021 College of Medicine and Public Health Alumni Magazine – Read more