Changing the world for 50 years

Prostate cancer: Rooting out a killer

Posted on Wednesday 27 February 2013

Prostate cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in men. Professor Norman Maitland and his team are at the forefront of research into this deadly disease, potentially life-saving work that has the support of cancer charities - and generous local people. Here, he talks about the award-winning work underway at York to find effective treatments...

Professor Maitland and his team at work in the Yorkshire Cancer Research laboratories

Leading cancer specialist, Professor Norman Maitland occasionally receives small amounts of money in the post from complete strangers.

It’s usually only five or ten pounds – seemingly insignificant amounts when compared to the millions of pounds his pioneering work at the University of York has received from cancer charities and major research organisations over the years.

As researchers, we have to focus on the science of our work, but it’s important to be reminded of why we are doing it

Professor Norman Maitland

But for Professor Maitland, these sums are a small but poignant reminder of the often tragic human stories behind his lifetime efforts to find effective treatments for prostate cancer, one of the most common and deadliest forms of cancer in men.

“The money comes from individuals who have experience of prostate cancer, either people who have been diagnosed with the disease or who have lost loved ones as a result of it. There’s often a note with the cheque just asking me to put the money towards our research. Each one is acknowledged personally, since for me, it really brings home the reason I am doing this work. As researchers, we have to focus on the science of our work, but it’s important to be reminded of why we are doing it,” said Professor Maitland.

Under the microscope

Prostate cancer has been under the microscope at the University’s Cancer Research Unit for over 20 years. In that time, studies led by Professor Maitland at the Heslington campus have built a clearer picture of a disease that kills over 10,000 men each year in Britain alone. This has resulted in major advances in understanding the genetic make-up of the disease, how it can be detected, and crucially, how it could be treated.

With prostate cancer, you need to treat the root of the disease, and our studies suggest that the root is the stem cells

Professor Norman Maitland

It’s potentially life-saving work - and the involvement of a hand-picked team of research students also ensures that expertise being nurtured on campus will be shared and taken forward by future generations of medical scientists.

The importance of Professor Maitland’s work has been recognised by a string of awards, backed by generous financial support from organisations including the Yorkshire Cancer Research charity (YCR) who have donated over £8 million to sustain the work. The research is conducted in state of the art labs at the YCR Cancer Research Unit, sited within the University’s £25m Biosciences Building. Adjoining laboratories house Pro-Cure Therapeutics Ltd, a spin out company founded by Professor Maitland in 2001 to help translate his pioneering lab work into commercial cancer drugs and therapies.

Professor Maitland also won international acclaim for research work into human papillomavirus infections and cervical cancer. He is quick to acknowledge the guidance in this work of the distinguished biochemist Professor Guy Dodson, who died recently.

The root cause of prostate cancer

Live prostate cancer stem cells under the microscope. Image by Dr Davide Pellacani

The research team’s current focus is on promising developments linked to prostate cancer stem cells, widely regarded as the 'root' cause of all prostate cancers. York was the first research centre to obtain prostate cancer stem cells and the studies aim to understand the survival mechanisms of these cells despite aggressive treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.

“Current treatments can reduce the bulk of the tumour, but they seem to have limited effects on the stem cells. It’s like pulling the leaves off a dandelion but leaving the root in the ground allowing the plant to regenerate, sometimes with increased vigour. With prostate cancer, you also need to treat the root of the disease and our studies suggest that the root is the stem cells,” said Professor Maitland, a keen gardener in his very limited spare time.

A further line of research is the recently discovered link between prostate cancer and retinoic acid, a form of Vitamin A. This landmark finding means it will now be possible to test whether retinoic acid, if given therapeutically, can force prostate cancer cells to develop into more specialised cells, a process which could then kill them or make them more susceptible to chemotherapy.

Glow in the dark

Another more unusual breakthrough unveiled at York was the discovery that luminous cells that enable jellyfish to glow in the dark can be used to illuminate and detect human cancer cells.

We continue to be impressed by Professor Maitland and his team

Charles Rowett, CEO of Yorkshire Cancer Research

The research team have made significant progress, but Professor Maitland is wary of talking about a cure. Current therapies are still at least five to ten years away from use with patients.

“I’m proud of what we have achieved at York,” he said. “I don’t like to say we are curing cancer – it’s not that simple, but we have greatly improved our understanding of the disease and that means we are potentially one step closer to developing effective longer - lasting treatments.”

World class research

Charles Rowett, CEO of Yorkshire Cancer Research, the charity which funds much of the work at York, said Professor Maitland’s team are amongst some of the key players in the world-class research underway across Yorkshire’s universities and teaching hospitals. Following a review by a panel of international experts which found that the work was at the forefront of its field, the charity recently renewed its funding with a further £2.15m award.

Charles said:

 “Scientific breakthroughs don’t happen every day – they are the result of years of hard work and the unwavering commitment and dedication of research groups across the world. We continue to be impressed by Professor Maitland and his team who are funded by the over-whelming generosity of the people of Yorkshire whose donations help to fight a disease that touches the lives of so many families in the county and beyond.”

Related links

  • YCR Cancer Research Unit
    The Cancer Research Unit is located within the University’s Department of Biology rated “excellent” for research and placed in the top group of biology departments of UK universities
  • Yorkshire Cancer Research
    Read more about the Yorkshire Cancer Research Charity and how you can support their valuable work

50 years of gold standard achievement

Cutting edge research, pioneering medical breakthroughs and thought-provoking academic insight have formed our core purpose since 1963.

This series, which will run throughout 2013, will demonstrate how our research, teaching and the application of both have brought tangible benefits to society and changed our understanding of the world we live in.

Previous story

Home sweet home for Stone Age hunter gatherers

Next story

York Professor counts the price of poverty

More to come

We'll be adding to this series all throughout 2013.

To keep up to date with our latest news, you can:

Subscribe to our news feedFollow us on Twitter