A grateful patient, treated only briefly at Flinders more than three decades ago, is providing a long-lasting legacy by helping researchers to develop new treatments for men with incurable, metastatic prostate cancer.
Ralph Ernst was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1988 while caravanning around Australia with his wife Pixie and was operated on and cared for by the urology service at Flinders Medical Centre.
All these years later, up until his passing in 2020, Ralph remained indebted for the care he received at Flinders. From his home in far-north Queensland, he was passionate about supporting men with similar cancers, including prostate cancer.
With Pixie’s love and support, he left a generous gift to Flinders Foundation which will support research into men’s cancers for many years to come.
This month, the inaugural Ralph Ernst PhD Scholarship in Prostate Cancer Research was awarded to Sam Rollin.
Sam joins Flinders University’s Prostate Cancer Research Group headed up by Associate Professor Luke Selth, with the team focused on understanding how prostate cancer becomes resistant to Androgen Deprivation Therapy – the current frontline hormone therapy treatment for men with metastatic prostate cancer which has spread beyond the prostate.
“This therapy basically deprives the body of testosterone, and while most patients get some benefit, the side effects can be nasty,” A/Prof Selth explains.
“Unfortunately, once tumours become resistant to this therapy, the cancer is incurable and can rapidly progress.
“If we want to eventually cure people with metastatic prostate cancer, then the current therapies aren’t going to do it, so our work is really focused on developing new therapies with fewer side effects.”
One of these therapies focuses on manipulating the androgen receptor – the major driver of prostate cancer cell growth – to potentially make prostate tumours more sensitive to immunotherapy treatment.
Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that works by boosting a person’s own immune system to fight cancer. While it is often used to treat melanoma, lung, kidney and head and neck cancers, it hasn’t been as successful when it comes to prostate cancer.
“Most research focuses on depriving the androgen receptor of androgen, but we’re looking at doing the opposite and activating the androgen receptor using smarter hormonal therapies in a way that can reduce tumour growth,” Sam explains.
“We believe that activating the androgen receptor in the right way can ‘prime’ the immune system to make prostate tumours more sensitive to immunotherapy, a strategy which we hope will lead to better patient outcomes.”
Sam says Ralph and Pixie’s generosity is providing him with the opportunity to make an incredible difference:
“I’m so grateful to Ralph and Pixie for the chance to work with Luke’s team because it’s allowing me to do what I’ve always wanted to do – to play my part researching this devastating disease so we can improve outcomes for patients facing the poorest prognoses.”