UChicago prostate cancer expert to use DOD grant to study racial disparities

From left: immunology grad student Edwin Reyes chats with prostate cancer researchers Don Vander Griend, PhD; and Russell Szmulewitz, MD, in their lab at the University of Chicago Surgery Brain Research Institute (SBRI) lab Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.    (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

From left: immunology grad student Edwin Reyes chats with prostate cancer researchers Don Vander Griend, PhD; and Russell Szmulewitz, MD, in their lab at the University of Chicago Surgery Brain Research Institute (SBRI) lab Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago)

By Jaimie Oh

Despite shrinking funds for biomedical research, Donald Vander Griend, PhD, assistant professor of surgery in the Section of Urology and director of urological stem cell research at the University of Chicago Medicine, has been able to secure funding for several innovative research projects related to prostate cancer initiation and development. Scientific inquiry and discovery in this area is exceptionally needed: Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer and the second-leading cause of death in American men.

Most recently, he and his colleagues received a three-year, $600,000 award from the Department of Defense to study health disparities between African American and Caucasian males with prostate cancer.

Statistics show that prostate cancer diagnoses and mortality rates are significantly higher for African American men than Caucasian men. Although access to healthcare is partly to blame for this disparity, it is believed that disease etiology and tumor characteristics play a major role in why this disease manifests more frequently and more aggressively in African American men.

In fact, scientific evidence suggests that, compared with Caucasian males with similar clinical profiles, African American men have larger tumors, twice as frequent Gleason score upgrading after radical prostatectomy and higher levels of prostate-specific antigen at diagnosis.

Vander Griend and his colleagues will study differences in DNA methylation patterns between African American and Caucasian men with prostate cancer. DNA methylation is strongly suggested to have a major role in prostate cancer aggressiveness. The team will carry out this work by collecting and banking tissues samples from 144 prostate cancer patients. According to Vander Griend, this study is the first genome-wide study of DNA methylation in African American vs. Caucasian men with prostate cancer.

In July, he wrote about the pivotal role previous federal funding has played in his research on the underlying genetics of prostate cancer:

Cancer research is crucial to identifying key causes of disease development. Once we know more about the mechanisms of cancer development in the prostate, we can ultimately work to prevent prostate cancer from developing in the first place and taking its toll on the lives of men worldwide.

The new grant will allow him to continue this crucial line of work.

“Collectively, work in this laboratory is aimed at developing new paradigms for how prostate tumors initiate and progress to metastatic disease and exploiting our discoveries to develop new tools for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of prostate cancer,” Vander Griend said.

Jaimie Oh is a marketing and communications specialist with the Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine.

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