A new frontier fighting prostate cancer

  • UMES researcher’s gene splicing idea earns U.S. Patent

    Thursday, July 13, 2017
    Azah Mohamed and cancer research Dr. Peter Wang

    The University of Maryland Eastern Shore's Dr. Peter Wang is on a mission to unlock the mysteries behind a medical diagnosis dreaded by half the planet: prostate cancer. 

    Along with fellow oncology researchers with whom he's worked since immigrating from Taiwan 15 years ago, Wang is an emerging expert in the field of cancer genomics. 

    Shortly after joining UMES' School of Pharmacy faculty in 2016, Wang was one of three researchers awarded a U.S. Patent for a diagnosis and treatment described as “novel splicing variants of the genes associated with prostate cancer risk and survival.” 

    Much work still lies ahead, Wang said, but peers have signaled that the gene splicing strategy focusing on ribonucleic acid - commonly known as RNA - shows promise in treating a disease that is the third leading cause of death among American men, according to the American Cancer Society. 

    The numbers are proportionately higher among African-American men, which is of particular interest to Wang and his colleagues who are sharing their findings on how inhibiting aberrant RNA splicing might be the pathway to reducing prostate cancer disparities across racial populations.

    U.S. Patent No. 9,453,261 / Sept. 27, 2016

    Wang co-authored a 14-page article published online June 30 by the journal Nature Communications outlining what researchers have learned trying to measure tumor “aggressiveness and drug resistance in African American prostate cancer.” 

    “We are basically searching for a way to translate what we have discovered into a clinical approach in the future,” Wang said. “Our ultimate goal is: we want to help patients. 

    “One of the mysteries in human genome is why 20,000 human genes can produce up to one million proteins.” Wang said. “The key step is called 'alternative RNA splicing'. It is a process that allows different coded information from the same gene to be selected then 'spliced' together.” 

    “One single gene could make multiple different proteins,” he said. 

    Accumulating evidence suggests that alternative RNA splicing may have critical roles in various types of diseases, including cancer. 

    Wang and fellow researchers, including Dr. Norman Lee of the George Washington University and Dr. Steven Patierno of Duke University, with whom he shared the recent patent designation, are concentrating on understanding how maintaining accurate RNA messages (by correcting the aberrant RNA splicing) might lead to staving off or possibly curing prostate cancer. 

    Medical science has relied for decades on prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood testing as an indicator men might be symptomatic of prostate cancer. PSA is a protein produced by cancerous and noncancerous tissue in the prostate. 

    As a “biomarker,” Wang said, PSA test results can be imprecise. 

    “We want to find a better way to provide early detection of aggressive prostate cancer, and screening for aberrant RNA splicing seems to be a promising approach/tool to achieve this,” he said. 

    Lee, a professor of pharmacology and physiology at the George Washington University's School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said African Americans not only have a higher incidence of prostate cancer, they also have “a worse prognosis compared to those of European American decent.” 

    "In trying to understand the genetic basis,” Lee said in a statement promoting publication of the Nature Communications article, “we found that part of it may have to do with differential RNA splicing." 

    The journal article goes on to point out, Lee noted, "that … African Americans with prostate cancer do not always respond to targeted therapies. These drugs were found to be effective in European Americans with prostate cancer and do end up killing off the cancer." 

    Although socioeconomics is considered a major contributor for prostate cancer disparities, it alone cannot fully explain the cancer disparities observed between different ethnic groups. 

    Lee, Wang and their research teammates have concluded that distinct genetic differences are likely the culprit for “tumor aggressiveness” and "drug resistance" in African American prostate cancers. 

    While Wang continues his research with collaborators, he accepted an appointment to UMES' faculty because it “provides me a more-balanced work life. I enjoy doing research, but I also like teaching and interacting with students.” 

    Azah Mohamed, a doctoral student in toxicology from Sudan, has worked as Wang's research assistant since January and describes him as “so patient, flexible, caring and serious about his work.” 

    “He goes over and beyond to make sure you understand the topic,” Mohamed said. “He is great (with) hands-on work in the lab and makes you feel independent doing your work with great supervision.” 

    Wang's first visit to campus came about four years ago when he was invited to be a guest lecturer while working as a researcher in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at the George Washington University. 

    “I had good interaction with UMES pharmacy students,” Wang said of his brief visit. “They made a good impression.” 

    He saw the opportunity at UMES as a way to work with students like Mohamad and “still keep my research interests.” 

    The next step, he said, is “to validate the 'splice variants' in large-scale clinical samples and further translate our finding to precision medicine that can truly help prostate cancer patients.”