In one California laboratory, basic science is powered by pure imagination and creativity is let loose on the laws of logic. That’s where tumor immunologist Dr. Gang Zeng is crafting his masterwork, using the robust serum of the body’s sensitive immune system to create a more effective prostate cancer detection tool.
Born to a family of physicians in the Shandong Province of China, the CRPF-funded researcher is an assistant professor of urology at the University of California at Los Angeles. It has been more than a decade since he left his home to pursue graduate studies in the United States. In 1997, armed with his newly earned American doctorate, Zeng began a five-year stint at the National Cancer Institute under the mentorship of world-renowned cancer immunologist Dr. Steven Rosenberg.
“Dr. Rosenberg helped me understand how basic science can make a real difference in people’s lives. That’s what I want to do—translate the fundamentals of basic science into improved patient care. It’s a family tradition that I am happy to continue,” Zeng says.
Today he is using immunology to fashion a tool that may someday complement the widely used prostate specific antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer detection. While the PSA test has played a significant role in reducing prostate cancer deaths, it has serious limitations.
“An elevated PSA level doesn’t automatically mean prostate cancer. We call that low specificity. That means that the antigen is not a pure target for detection of the disease,” Zeng says. “And in early detection, we are looking for a test that is highly specific and a clear indication of early stage cancer.”
The answer may be found in the body’s unique immune response to the “homegrown invader,” according to Zeng. “When our bodies are attacked from the outside by a virus, for example, a single antibody is produced to fight it,” he says. “That means we can search for one target for diagnosis and early detection. But the immune response to cancer varies from person to person and may involve multiple antibodies. Tumors can even fool our bodies into believing that a malignant cell is nothing out of the ordinary.”
Still Zeng isn’t discouraged. “We have come a long way in the last ten years, and sophisticated technology is helping us identify multiple offending proteins and their corresponding antibodies.”
The painstaking chore of synthesizing proteins for testing in the laboratory is time consuming and expensive, but with the assistance of computer analysis, Zeng is able to create proteins and generate comprehensive analytical data that reveal critical information. He has already developed an “epitope array,” a panel of proteins that appear to be specific to prostate cancer tissue and produce unique antibodies.
Preliminary tests on human prostate cancer tissue show remarkable specificity. While this is just the beginning stage of research, it is critical to the future of Zeng’s longrange research goal. “The Foundation’s funding is enabling me to make this research real and to ultimately prove the value of the immunological tool to the detection of prostate cancer.”