Dr. Felix Feng is a physician/scientist at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) keenly interested in improving outcomes for patients with prostate cancer. His research centers on discovering prognostic/predictive biomarkers in prostate cancer and developing rational approaches to targeted treatment for therapy-resistant prostate cancer. He also sees patients through his prostate cancer clinic at UCSF.
Prostatepedia spoke with him about how technology companies and healthcare organizations are collaborating for prostate cancer research.
You’re at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), just north of Silicon Valley, home of the tech revolution. The media talk a lot about how technological advances are changing every aspect of society and healthcare in particular. How will emerging technologies impact prostate cancer research and patients?
Dr. Felix Feng: Certainly, UCSF exposes me to the tech revolution. I also grew up in Silicon Valley and went to Stanford University during the dotcom boom, so I’m pretty familiar with tech. The beauty of technology is that it allows us to think on a much larger scale than before.
Big data refers to analyzing large amounts of data from multiple sources, from clinical data to genomic data and so forth. Big data has impacted our field tremendously. My research team has had a few very productive collaborations with big data industry partners.
We collaborated with GenomeDX Biosciences, the molecular diagnostics company that makes the Decipher assay. To conduct the Decipher assay and look at the 22 genes that make up the Decipher score, they must analyze the expression of the vast majority of genes within the prostate cancer genome. We’ve partnered with GenomeDX to analyze samples from around 40,000 patients to generate predictive biomarkers and to identify genes that are associated with bad outcomes in prostate cancer. This provides direction for what we should study in the lab.
Another exciting collaboration is with a sequencing company called Illumina. We recently sequenced the whole genomes of 100 patients with metastatic prostate cancer. The data from those 100 patients took about 50 terabytes, a very large amount of data. We sequenced these patients, and housed, processed, and analyzed the data using the infrastructure they developed in the Amazon Cloud.
We’ve also partnered with a number of drug companies that run large clinical trials. These companies provided us access to samples from their clinical trials, recognizing that it costs millions of dollars to run a national clinical trial with many patients. The samples from these trials are an invaluable resource. When utilized in the right manner, these industry partnerships help us accelerate discovery to improve prostate cancer therapy.
Would you say that the greatest impact has been in the arena of genomics just because of the massive amount of data that’s generated?
Dr. Feng: That’s one of the major areas of advances. But there are so many areas of advancement in prostate cancer therapy right now that it’s hard to pick the most exciting. We’re super excited by a technology called CRISPR, a gene editing approach that allows scientists to silence genes, one-by-one in the context of prostate cancer, or in the context of cancer cell line models. These CRISPR approaches allow us to broadly study the function of many different genes and to couple that with what we’re finding from sequencing the tumors.
There are other exciting developments in novel therapeutics that target androgen receptor signaling, which is the major diagnosis of prostate cancer, and also in immunotherapy, targeting DNA repair in prostate cancer, and through drugs likePARP inhibitors.
Partnering with the tech sector has helped us identify the genomic drivers of prostate cancer, and that allows for personalized therapy. Interrogating big data from drug companies has also accelerated the pace of drug development.
Are there any collaborations that are not happening that you would like to see?
Dr. Feng: As a radiation oncologist, I am interested in how radiation can modulate immune response. When radiation kills prostate cancer, it might expose the immune system to proteins found in the tumors, proteins called antigens, which the immune system wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. I wish that more companies would focus on combining systemic drugs with radiation as a way to improve patient outcomes. Whatever the reason, I hope that we recognize the potential of radiation to improve patients’ systemic response to immunotherapy.
The field of prostate cancer is advancing rapidly. Academic researchers and industry partners use technological advances, whether big data or improved modeling approaches to identify new therapeutic approaches for patients. Just a decade ago, there was only one FDA-approved drug for patients with metastatic prostate cancer who have become resistant to first time hormone therapy. Now we have six FDA-approved drugs for them. Imagine what the next decade will bring.