prostate cancer discovery

Mast Cells Linked to Risk of Cancer Recurrence

Sfanos Sfanos: In prostate cancer, it seems that mast cells — immune cells involved in allergic reactions — are good for you.

Men who had more mast cells in their tumor were less likely to have a return of cancer

Is it possible that an allergic response could be good for you? Research led by scientist Karen Sfanos, Ph.D., suggests that in men with prostate cancer, the answer is yes: the key seems to be mast cells. Mast cells are complicated. A type of immune cell, they do good things — help fight off pathogens and heal wounds — yet also can lead to severe allergic reactions. It’s not often that mast cells and prostate cancer are spoken of together; that will likely change, thanks to the work by Sfanos and a multidisciplinary Hopkins team. “We have discovered that mast cells may be linked to prostate cancer recurrence,” says Sfanos, who has been working for several years with a team of Brady scientists to figure out the immune system’s role in prostate cancer.

“Mast cells are primed to respond quickly whenever they detect something harmful, such as an allergen” (a substance that causes an allergic reaction), Sfanos explains. “They can release factors that lead to chronic inflammation and tissue remodeling; both of these are also known to be involved in the development of many types of cancer.” Is there any significance to the number of mast cells found in cancerous prostate tissue?

A recent study conducted by Heidi Hempel, a Pathobiology graduate student in Sfanos’ laboratory, aimed to find out. Helping to answer this question were epidemiologist Elizabeth Platz, Sc.D., M.P.H., and pathologist Angelo De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D., who have developed a unique sample set of tissues from men who underwent radical prostatectomy at Hopkins; some of these men experienced recurrence of cancer, and some remained cancer-free. Hopkins pathologists Toby Cornish, M.D., Ph.D., and Nathan Cuka, M.D., also collaborated, designing novel image analysis software that counted the mast cells in each patient’s cancer tissues; other investigators included Ibrahim Kulac, M.D. and John Barber.

“Somewhat surprisingly, we discovered that high mast cell numbers were inversely associated with prostate cancer recurrence,” says Sfanos. “Very low numbers of mast cells indicated that the cancer was more likely to come back.”

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