Vancouver Prostate Centre is leading research on men’s health, prostate cancer

For the past 25 years, UBC Faculty of Medicine researchers at the Vancouver Prostate Centre (VPC) have investigated the detection, diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer.

According to VPC, prostate cancer is the leading cancer for men in BC and the third leading cause of cancer deaths Canada-wide.

The prostate gland, located under the bladder, plays an important role in secreting fluid that protects and nourishes sperm. As prostate gland cells grow and divide, there is a higher chance of getting mutations or errors in DNA, which increases the likelihood of developing prostate cancer.

Some of prostate cancer’s contributing risk factors are age, family history, weight, and inherited gene mutations.

Dr. Colin Collins, a senior research scientist at the VPC and professor of urological sciences, studies genomics - “the DNA we are born with” - to better understand and predict aggressive treatment-resistant prostate cancer.

Collins said while prostate cancer is more common in men over the age of 50, it can still affect younger men, especially those with a family history of the disease.

“If your grandfather and your father or your father's brother has prostate cancer, you have a greatly increased risk, so you need to pay attention to that,” he said.

Collins said that while the classic symptoms — like infrequent or difficult urination — are a sign to get a prostate exam, they are not the only reason to get screened. Those with localized prostate cancer have been shown to rarely experience symptoms, so Collins recommends that people with family histories and risk factors get screened proactively.

“It turns out, I don't know any guys, including myself, who had any of those symptoms,” Collins said. “So, a lot of guys just don't get tested — and then when they do, they have pretty advanced cancer needing aggressive intervention.”

According to VPC, prostate cancer can be detected through methods like digital rectal exams and a prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test.

Collins hopes his research contributes to not only more therapy insights to improve the quality of life of prostate cancer patients, but also to informing treatment options based on the subtype of the cancer.

“Sometimes it’s very slow growing, not aggressive, or looks really aggressive but it will not be metastatic,” Collins said. “If we can predict these things in advance, then that helps clinicians and patients make better decisions.”

Dr. Amina Zoubeidi is a Canada Research Chair in Cancer Therapy Resistance and professor of urological sciences. Like Collins, Zoubeidi stressed the importance of early prostate cancer detection.

She also recommends talking about family histories of prostate cancer risk with all relatives, not just male family members. Mutations in BRCA genes, which normally suppress tumours associated with breast cancer, can also increase chances of developing prostate cancer, Zoubeidi said.

Zoubeidi specifically studies how prostate cancer therapy targeting the androgen receptor (AR), the main driver of prostate cancer, can induce treatment resistance.

“Although we have effective drugs that target the androgen receptor, patients develop resistance to these drugs,” said Zoubeidi. Resistance can come in the form of a known prostate cancer or, Zoubeidi said, in the form of a rare neuroendocrine prostate cancer, when prostate cancer cells develop alternative gene expressions to bypass treatment.

Zoubeidi hopes her work furthers insights into aggressive cancer development and the processes of hormone therapy resistance in patients.

She described her experience in prostate cancer research as “fun and collaborative” and encouraged more students to go into the field.

"It is always rewarding to witness the growth of students throughout their academic journey as they evolve into accomplished scientists, presenting and publishing their work,” Zoubeidi said.

“I have been doing this for over 20 years, and it still amazes every day when I am learning something new and different.”