Mark Foundation Partners with Prostate Cancer Research to Fund Dr. Jennifer Munkley’s Efforts to Target Sugars on Metastatic Prostate Cancer Cells
Despite prostate cancer being a major cancer in men, with an annual estimate of over 240,000 new cases diagnosed and over 34,000 deaths in the US, research funding for it and other non-COVID health problems was cut dramatically over the past year. In addition, numerous clinical trials were delayed or cancelled, and many researchers redirected their studies to other health sectors. But there seems to be some light at the end of the pandemic-blocked tunnel.
Newcastle University scientist, Dr Jennifer Munkley was just awarded a nearly $400,000 grant, co-funded by The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research and Prostate Cancer Research, to explore why and how prostate cancer spreads. In the most deadly cases, prostate cancer spreads to bone, which is very painful and incurable, but Dr. Munkley and her team hope their work will lead to new treatment options.
Dr. Munkley’s research focuses on the complex sugars that coat our cells. She and her team have identified three types of sugars that are found at high levels in tumours and blood in men whose prostate cancer has spread to bone. These sugars make prostate cancers grow faster and make it more likely that the cancers will spread to bone.
This discovery provides an important opportunity, as drugs that target these sugars have already been developed for other diseases. These drugs work by inhibiting the enzymes that synthesize the sugars, or by acting as decoys to block receptors from recognizing the native sugars. The team’s ongoing research explores whether these drugs could stop the spread of prostate cancer and be a new treatment option for those with advanced stages of the disease. The team will also explore how these special sugars help prostate cancer cells take root and grow in bone.
“We can think of a prostate cancer cell without its glycan sugars as like a bird without its feathers,” explains Dr. Munkley. “So, if we can remove these feathers from prostate cancer cells, we can stop the prostate cancer from growing and spreading.”
Ryan Schoenfeld, Chief Scientific Officer at The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, adds, “Treating bone metastasis in advanced prostate cancer represents a substantial unmet need for patients. Therapeutic interventions that target glycans, carbohydrates on the cell surface, hold enormous potential for addressing that unmet need, and we are excited about the insights Dr. Munkley’s research is positioned to deliver in this regard.”
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on medical research, with the Association of Medical Research Charities calculating that roughly $382 million in research funding has been cut since the pandemic started. The Mark Foundation has worked to close that gap, however. Including the $250,000 they put toward funding Dr. Munkley’s research, they have now committed nearly $24 million toward other cancer foundations to help support research projects that would have lost funding.
“We haven’t had the budget shortfalls that other foundations have seen,” says Michele Cleary, CEO of The Mark Foundation, which has awarded over $122 million in cancer research grants since 2017. “And because we can act nimbly as opportunities to fund impactful science arise, we’ve been able to step in and help other foundations fund some really interesting projects that may not have moved forward otherwise.”
Dr. Munkley’s funding is also part of £1.4 million awarded by Prostate Cancer Research to projects that could have a real impact for those living with advanced prostate cancer. In 2020, the charity found that more research into how to prevent and treat prostate cancer spreading to bone was urgently needed. The pandemic has made this even more urgent, as more men are now likely to be diagnosed at a later stage.