By David Lingholm
Mustaches are making a comeback, at least during the month of November. Sporting facial hair above the lip is hip again as men around the world join in to raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research.
To Arul Chinnaiyan, M.D. Ph.D., the month it happens in is not important. Leading the research to effectively treat prostate cancer is his mission. And he is doing his research in our own backyard: at the University of Michigan Health System.
Although he didn’t dream of fighting prostate cancer as a kid, he was always very interested in biology and science in general. As an undergraduate at University of Michigan, he was given the opportunity to study bio-medicine. It seems that both the technology for research, and his interest in diagnosing disease properly grew up at the same time. This marriage encouraged his groundbreaking research to continue at the University.
“The University of Michigan has always been a very welcoming place for training investigators,” says Dr. Chinnaiyan. “My colleagues been very collegial, and the university has always had reputation for placing emphasis on being a training-ground for new researchers. “
His research centers around the genes that lay the bedrock for the cells of the prostate. Think of the genes that make up your prostate as a deck of cards. When the cards get shuffled, they usually land back in a nice clean pile. If the cards accidentally get scattered, the pile still ends up fused together. This incorrect fusion is what causes cancer.
Researchers had assumed that fusion only happened in blood or bone cancers but Dr. Chinnaiyan proved that same process happens in prostate cancer as well. He has also proven that there are different types of gene fusions in the prostate that can be put into rough categories. These findings hold several implications.
From a diagnostic perspective, these findings can lead to very specific tests that can find the formation of specific tumor types early. His research will also allow for developing more specific treatments that can be more effective in removing the cancerous growths. There are also research implications for other “solid” tumors, such as breast cancer tumors. Since the they share a similar structure, Chinnaiyan’s research could prove useful in finding the specific genetic markers of those tumors as well.
The next step for Chinnaiyan is to move his research out of the laboratory and into clinical use. Now that his team at the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology understand what causes the tumors to grow, they can now focus finding rational treatments for prostate cancer.
So this month, when you think about dismissing that mustachioed man for being behind the fashion times or indulging in hipster-irony, think again. He could be helping fight cancer and funding research in Ann Arbor in his own way.
Editor’s Note: Do you want to participate or donate to the Movember cause for Prostate Cancer? The author of this post is a member of a local group raising money for the cause – you can see pictures and contribute here.