Building an environment to combat prostate cancer

Dr. Martin Gleave is a man with many hats. Not only is he the Head of the UBC Faculty of Medicine’s Urologic Sciences department, he is a clinician, renowned research scientist, urologic surgeon, and founder of a UBC spin-off company, OncoGenex Pharmaceuticals.

It’s a formidable resume. And that’s before you factor in his role as the chief architect of an environment that is bringing together leading researchers to share their expertise to combat prostate cancer, the most prevalent cancer in BC men and the second leading cause of cancer deaths.

Gleave is the executive director and a leading researcher at the Vancouver Prostate Centre (VPC), a research hub hosted by UBC and the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute that he co-founded with prominent cancer researchers in 1998. It has since become one of the world’s most respected cancer research facilities. He is also CEO of the Prostate Centre’s Translational Research Initiative for Accelerated Discovery and Development (PC-TRiADD), a national centre for excellence in research and commercialization.

Together, these programs have created a collaborative and fertile environment with a rigorous bench-to-bedside philosophy, focused on advancing clinical research discoveries into treatments with minimal delay. It is able to do so by combining strengths in cancer genomics with the research and development of new drugs treatments.




Researchers like Drs. Colin Collins and Yuzhuo Wang are teaming up to pave the way for personalized oncology. By sequencing the genomes of cancer tumours, Collins and Wang, who are Senior Scientists at the VPC, are predicting more precise and effective anti-cancer therapies, targeting the specific molecular characteristics of the malignant growth. A breakthrough blood test developed at VPC by a team led by Dr. Kim Chi is now allowing the genetic profiling of cancers in patients that is already transforming the treatments they receive.

A recent breakthrough in drug development has revolutionary potential for treating castrate-resistant prostate cancers. The breakthrough was made possible through a collaboration between leaders in seemingly disparate scientific domains. Dr. Paul Rennie is considered a long-established world leader in the biology of androgen receptors, key sites on cells where overexpressed hormones bind and cause prostate cancer. Dr. Artem Cherkasov’s expertise lies in in-silico or computer-aided drug design, which uses bioinformatics tools to test and develop new drugs, bypassing the lengthy, expensive initial process of drug discovery using classic in-vivo methods.

Their new discovery takes a completely new approach to treating castrate-resistant prostate cancer. As this form of cancer is driven by the androgen receptor, other drug treatments have attacked prostate cancers by trying to lower production of the male sex hormone, testosterone, or block its binding to the androgen receptor. While often initially effective, the cancer will evolve to overcome these chemical changes and become “castration-resistant”, where it adapts to makes its own androgen, cooperate with other survival pathways to support androgen receptor activity, or eventually completely bypass the need for the androgen receptor as a driver gene anymore. To overcome these adaptive mechanisms, Rennie and Cherkasov have designed a drug that rather than blocking the site where the androgen binds to the androgen receptor, instead blocks that site where the androgen receptor binds to DNA, effectively taking the wheels off the car and putting the cancer “up on blocks” to prevent it developing, regardless of what is happening to the fuel. It is the apex anti-androgen that has caused quite a stir in prostate cancer research circles and an incredible feat of collaboration between some of the most respected researchers in their fields. It is most importantly a discovery that could have life-altering impacts on patients. In December 2015, UBC announced that the discovery had been licensed to Roche, in UBC’s largest licensing deal to date

The Vancouver Prostate Centre is clearly a fertile ecosystem for entrepreneurial innovation, and has been the birthplace of several spin-off companies such as Aquinox Pharmaceuticals, Sitka Pharmaceuticals, and OncoGenex, a company based on discoveries made by Gleave, who was a founder and served as Chief Scientific Officer of the company. OncoGenex was able to utilize the research capacity and expertise of the VPC to advance its research and clinical trials, and was able to remain in many ways a virtual company with minimal staffing and infrastructure costs for a number of years. The relationship with the VPC and PC-TRIADD enabled the company to tap into many existing resources and expertise within the centre, avoiding duplication of resources, allowing the company to direct a much greater proportion of its finance directly into drug development and has progressed its lead drug candidates much more quickly.

Thanks to the collaborative research environment created by Gleave, and the many discoveries he has been involved in, the Vancouver Prostate Centre and their collaborating institutions are transforming patient care.  

The provision and maintenance of research infrastructure and facilities such as the Vancouver Prostate Centre at UBC and its affiliated hospitals are significantly suppported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Federal Research Support Fund .


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