The V Foundation for Cancer Research has awarded Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center computational biologist Gavin Ha, PhD, a 2019 V Scholar Grant to study whether a noninvasive procedure known as a liquid biopsy can help monitor and predict how patients with prostate cancer will respond to therapy.

V Scholar Grants are designed to help early-career investigators like Ha pursue high-risk, high-reward ideas. Ha uses computational methods to profile cancer genomes from patients’ tumors and blood. These blood tests, often referred to as liquid biopsies, can be used to study DNA released from tumor cells into the blood to reveal crucial information about a patient’s disease, including clues to treatment resistance.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in men, but what makes prostate cancer deadly in some men but not others? The answer lies in the DNA of prostate tumor cells,” said Ha, who is a member of the Public Health Sciences and Human Biology divisions at the Hutch. “My research is focused on developing innovative approaches to better understand the roles of genetic abnormalities in cancer treatment resistance.”

Ha will use the two-year, $200,000 award to shed light on what is known as metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, an advanced stage of disease that has become resistant to androgen-deprivation therapy, a type of anti-hormone therapy. This type of cancer is lethal and incurable.

“Abnormal changes can occur in the DNA of tumor cells and give them the ability to resist standard treatments,” Ha said. While monitoring tumor DNA over time can help uncover these changes, obtaining cancer cells via traditional biopsy from tumors that have metastasized to other organs such as the bone can be both painful and difficult.

Liquid biopsies are a much less invasive way to measure the tiny amounts of DNA that are released from tumor cells into the blood. Ha and his team have developed new computational techniques, combined with whole gene sequencing, to reveal signatures of tumor DNA alterations from the blood.

“These signatures could allow clinicians to track whether a patient is responding well to treatment,” he said. “They could also help predict whether a patient’s tumor has the potential to resist treatment. Ultimately, our work will provide new tools to help doctors care for patients with less discomfort, better accuracy and greater precision.”

Ha came to Fred Hutch in 2018. This is his first award from the V Foundation. His other recent awards include a Transition Career Development Award from the National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Health and a Young Investigator Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

The V Foundation for Cancer Research grant program was founded in 1993 by Jim Valvano, a legendary basketball player, coach and broadcaster whose mission was “to achieve victory over cancer.” Valvano died of adenocarcinoma, a type of glandular cancer, in 1993. Since its creation, the Foundation has supported cancer research projects and related programs that are designed to change the course of cancer.

This article was originally published on January 30, 2020, by Hutch News. It is republished with permission.