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Researching the Possibilities

Prostate cancer is the most common newly diagnosed cancer in men in the United states.

Jose Gutierrez in lab coat and gear working on a research project

Meaning, if a man gets cancer in his life, it will most likely happen in the prostate. Additionally, to that, prostate cancer continues to be the second leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States, after lung cancer. This underlines the importance of my continuing research for new effective treatments. For some, prostate cancer can be slow growing and managed by what is called “active surveillance,” which includes regular checkups to ensure the tumor does not become aggressive. For others, tumors in the prostate can be more aggressive and, if left untreated, may spread to other parts of the body. 

This is when it is designated as advanced prostate cancer. The current therapies for advanced prostate cancer include radiation or radical prostatectomy, which is removal of the prostate. This surgery can lead to urinary incontinence, erectile dysfunction, or sterility. Epidemiologic studies have shown that 1 in 350 men younger than age 50 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. This statistic drastically increases to 1 in 52 men between the ages of 50 to 59, and raises to a shocking 6 in 10 (60%) at age 65 and above. 

Jose Gutierrez wearing full lab gear in the lab holding a tray of specimens

At any age, the side effects of a surgery such as radical prostatectomy may lead to more than just physical distress by also running the risk of taking a toll on a man’s psychological and emotional well-being. Even if the prostate is removed, the cancer may return. It is at this point that treatment move to chemotherapy or hormone treatments, which have been shown to not always be curative. So, there is still a need for new therapies that can be more effective and less detrimental to a prostate cancer patient’s quality of life, which is what my research seeks to discover.

How then is the public interest related to the research currently done in our lab? I would first like to start by raising awareness in men living with prostate cancer in regard to having discussions with their physicians about potentially decreasing the amount of folic acid in their diet. Folic acid is a type of folate, which is the key component that drives one-carbon metabolism. While we normally must obtain natural forms of folate from vegetables, folic acid specifically is a man-made form of folate which is supplemented into our whole grain and wheat-based products. 

Jose Gutierrez looking at a lab machine

This is important and done for other health reasons, particularly for pregnant women, but it results in some people in the United States having abnormally high levels of folate in their system. Lab studies have shown that cancer cell lines grown in high levels of folate acquire a growth advantage compared to conditions with lower folate levels. While epidemiologic studies have demonstrated that high serum folate levels correlate with increased prostate cancer risk. This evidence, among others, suggests lowering folic acid intake may be beneficial for men with prostate cancer.

Jose Gutierrez looking in a microscope in the lab

My research with Dr. Dean Bacich in the urology department at The University of Texas Health San Antonio, focuses on the initiation and progression of prostate cancer and its relation to one-carbon metabolism. One-carbon metabolism is the pathway that produces 3 of the 4 nucleotides that build DNA, making it an important process that cells use to grow. As a graduate researcher and PhD candidate, I am specifically interested in exploring the drug Metformin, normally and effectively used to treat type-II diabetes, as a possible therapeutic for advanced prostate cancer. Metformin has been used in the treatment of type-II diabetes for over 50 years. 

It has been investigated as a therapeutic for cancer only in the last 20 years. While there has been recurring evidence that metformin exhibits anti-tumor effects in lab studies, the mechanism by which it accomplishes this remains a point of contention. My work seeks to investigate a possible connection between metformin’s anti-cancer effect and one-carbon metabolism, as alluded to by Corominas-faja et al. in 2012 and Cabreiro et al. in 2013.