Professional Update: Targeting mitochondria to treat prostate cancer

05 April 2018, Ashwin Sachdeva

Ashwin Sachdeva is a TUF research scholar and winner of the TUF medal for the best research proposal of 2015. With his TUF funding, Ashwin, based in Newcastle, is looking to understand the role played by mitochondria in prostate cancer progression with the eventual goal of developing new treatments for men with prostate cancer.

What did I set out to do?

Every cell in our body contains numerous mitochondria, which are crucial for producing energy and contain their own DNA. This DNA accumulates errors as part of normal ageing, adversely affecting mitochondrial function.

Since ageing is a strong risk factor for prostate cancer, my research sets out to understand whether these age-related mitochondrial defects have an impact on prostate cancer progression.

What have I found?

The support I received from TUF has helped me build collaborations with urologists and scientists across the UK. Working with this team of researchers, I have been studying tissue samples from a large cohort of patients with prostate cancer, characterising an ageing prostate cancer animal model, and undertaking experiments to study mitochondrial function in cell lines.

Though these experiments are still ongoing, my preliminary results suggest that defective mitochondria may in fact slow down the progression of prostate cancer.

What’s next?

These results are very exciting, as they suggest that if we develop or repurpose drugs that target mitochondria in cancer cells, we may be able to slow down the progression of prostate cancer. I hope that my ongoing experiments will shed further light on this working hypothesis, and also help examine the underlying mechanisms for this finding.

In pursuit of this goal, I have developed an automated method to objectively study protein level changes in archived prostate tissue samples at the single cell level, in order to capture the rich cellular diversity that exists both within patients’ own tumours and between individual patients.

This method has afforded the opportunity to use ‘big data’ approaches to study millions of individual cells and objectively evaluate the prognostic potential of biomarkers in a robust manner. Now, by interrogating these enormous datasets, I plan to test whether mitochondrial defects impact long-term outcomes in men with prostate cancer.

Fighting prostate cancer outside the lab

An example of the artwork by Katie AntoniouAlongside my laboratory work, I’ve learnt that the fight against prostate cancer doesn’t only have to be purely scientific. Over the last year I’ve been working as part of an art-science collaboration called Valence (on Twitter as @valence_art) between the School of Fine Art and Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research at Newcastle University, to help produce artwork to communicate scientific research to the general public.

As researchers, we become used to looking under a microscope to learn more about how our bodies work. As such, we often don’t step back to appreciate the beauty that lies in the scientific images we generate.

It was while working with the artists in residence at Valence that I started to appreciate the fascinating patterns in these images. The artists have since turned these scientific images of cells and tissue samples into works of art, which have been exhibited across Newcastle.

These science-inspired art exhibitions have provided a medium to speak with members of the public about the prostate, and help raise awareness about prostate cancer, which has now become the most common male cancer in the UK.

Gladly, I’ve also been able to tell them about the recent advances in this area, as we continue to improve our understanding about its biology, diagnosis and management. For me, this has been a perfect opportunity to compliment the work of charities like TUF in raising awareness of prostate cancer.

We’re hoping to produce another exhibition soon, so watch this space!

If you’d like to follow Ashwin’s work, you can find him on Twitter @AshwinUrol .

You can see an example of the work of artist, Katie Antoniou in this article. Find out more about Katie's work and follow here on Instagram here.

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