A Newcastle University researcher has been given a significant award to target sugars and stop the spread of prostate cancer

Scientist Dr Jennifer Munkley has received a grant of £273,534, co-funded by The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research and Prostate Cancer Research, to explore why and how prostate cancer spreads.

In the deadliest cases, prostate cancer spreads to bone, which is very painful and incurable. But Dr Munkley, from the Faculty of Medical Sciences, and her team hope their work will lead to new treatment options.

Research focus

Her 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 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.

Dr Munkley said: “We can think of a prostate cancer cell without its glycan sugars as like a bird without its feathers. So, if we can remove these feathers from the prostate cancer cells, we can stop the prostate cancer from growing and spreading.

“We are really excited that Newcastle University is leading this important research. Funding for prostate cancer research has suffered terribly during the pandemic.

“We’re extremely grateful to Prostate Cancer Research for supporting this project which will be so important to men with prostate cancer.”

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. More than 47,500 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year – that’s 129 men every day.

Unmet need

Ryan Schoenfeld, Chief Scientific Officer at The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, added: “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 £270 million in research funding has been cut since the pandemic started.

Dr Munkley’s funding is 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.

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