It turns out that prostate cancer cells don’t need much oxygen; in fact, they thrive in a low-oxygen environment. Scientists have much to learn about what goes on in this weird environment of hypoxia, because it’s hard to study. Now, thanks to Sharon Gerecht, Ph.D., from the Johns Hopkins Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, scientists can study oxygen-starved tumor cells in real time.
“Rapid growth and proliferation of tumor cells depletes nearby oxygen concentrations,” Gerecht explains. “This hypoxia, in turn, alters cancer cells’ behavior,” making them move faster, more likely to invade other tissue – and also less sensitive to drugs. “In fact, many studies indicate that hypoxia is a major driver of metastasis – which suggests that drugs to target metastasis must be developed in the context of hypoxia.”
Gerecht developed “novel, hypoxiainducible hydrogels,” which allow scientists to watch how prostate cancer cells respond in an oxygen-starved environment. Using these hydrogels, “we will measure characteristics of prostate cancer motility and invasion and response to therapeutics.” They will watch how these cancer cells interact with immune cells – which may lead to better ways to make immunotherapy more effective. “We will also use an inhibitor of metastasis, identified by our group in sarcoma, in combination with current prostate cancer therapies to block metastasis in hypoxia. We hope our work will contribute to the understanding of prostate cancer biology and potentially identify new strategies for treatment.”