Research suggests novel therapies to block cancer metastasis are on the horizon

April 27, 2023


An article published by University of Arizona Cancer Center Researchers in the high-impact, peer-reviewed, Journal of Cell Biology, suggests that there may be new ways to inhibit the spread of prostate cancer. Doctor Noel Warfel, PhD, Cancer Center member and associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the College of Medicine, who is also the lead principal investigator on the paper, said his article presents evidence that a pro-survival protein called PIM1 helps cancer cells to move out of the primary site, a process known as metastasis that is responsible for the majority of cancer deaths.
The Warfel lab studies how low oxygen (hypoxia) impacts cancer progression. “All cancers develop areas of hypoxia as the cancer cells outgrow the blood supply in the area they inhabit, and hypoxia is highly associated with tumor invasion and metastasis,” Warfel said. “This research shows that increased levels of a pro-survival protein known as PIM1 in hypoxia causes cells to extend membrane protrusions and increases their ability to invade through tissue”. 
Warfel’s research also has translational promise, as PIM inhibitors significantly reduced prostate cancer invasion. Overall, these results identify PIM1 as a new target to block the spread of prostate cancer, according to Warfel. “Most of our cancer therapies are designed to kill cancer cells, but metastases are what ultimately kills patients, so blocking the ability of tumor cells to spread could be an effective approach,” Warfel said. “In addition, our study suggests that PIM1 could serve as a potential biomarker to predict the metastatic potential of primary prostate tumors.”

According to Dr. Joann Sweasy, PhD (Nancy C. and Craig M. Berge Endowed Chair for the Director of the Cancer Center) biomarker research is an area of cancer research that holds untold potential for game-changing discoveries. “Novel approaches to therapy and the identification of biomarkers are now and will continue to be crucial in the fight against cancer,” Sweasy said. “We’re going to see more and more ways that biomarkers can help us prevent, diagnose, and treat cancers of all kinds.”
Prostate cancer was the second most common cancer diagnosis in Arizona in 2022, according to Warfel, and the most common cancer diagnosed in men. “Prostate cancer patients have a very good prognosis if the tumor remains confined to the primary organ, but the 5-year survival rate drops from nearly 100% to 30% when the tumor escapes the primary site.” Warfel said. “If we can prevent prostate cancer from spreading by targeting PIM kinases and other molecules that drive invasion, we will have additional tools in our kit for helping people survive.”