Curiosity drives Dr. Elizabeth Hammond to devote endless hours peering into a microscope, analyzing blotches of tumor tissue to discover new ways to treat prostate cancer.
"I like to change the way pathology is done. I want what I do next year to be different than what I'm doing this year. I keep challenging traditional methods because I'm curious about the results," said Hammond. "We must continually move ahead."For the past seven years, Hammond, chairman of the pathology department at LDS Hospital, has been researching a hypothesis that is gaining attention of pathologists across the world. On her laboratory desk, Hammond has a pile of letters requesting details of the research with postmarks from Germany, Italy and China.
Her research supports a significant premise: That a substance produced by normal prostate tissue called prostate specific acid phosphatase (PSAP) is an important marker of whether patients with the cancer will survive for long periods of time.
In tracing over 200 cases, Hammond and her assistant, Ruixia Zhou, have discovered that prostate cancer patients who have a large amount of PSAP live significantly longer - regardless of the level of progression of the tumor.
Ultimately, this research could extend lives and save patients unnecessary treatment. And it may provide more cost-effective treatment of prostate cancer - the third leading cause of death among American men.
"Knowing the PSAP level will allow physicians to offer treatment specific to the patient - to prescribe the right, precise treatment at the right time," Hammond told the Deseret News.
"We can know if a patient would respond well to hormone therapy, or if an alternative should be used."
Potentially, the PSAP level is a marker of whether prostate cancer cells will respond favorably to hormone therapy that involves removing testosterone or giving estrogen. Side-effects of these female hormones could include hot flashes or breast development. Knowing if a patient will respond to hormone therapy decreases unnecessary suffering, said Hammond.
"We believe that hormone treatment should only be used in patients with a lot of PSAP present," Hammond said.
The PSAP is a different substance than the prostate-specific antigent (PSA) that is a helpful blood test in diagnosing prostate cancer.
A $50,000 grant from the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation is speeding up the research of Hammond and Zhou by fully automating a process called image analysis - analyzing tissue samples with computers to determine exact measurements of PSAP inside the cells.
With the automated microscope, researchers will be able to analyze 10 samples per day - instead of three - and improve the reproducibility of the data significantly.
About one in 11 American men will develop prostate cancer during his lifetime.
Because of her research, Hammond has had the satisfaction of telling a cancer patient whose disease had spread into his bony structure that his chances of responding well to therapy were very good because of a high presence of PSAP.
The full ramifications of the research will likely not be known for years. But Hammond finds it rewarding that the health of thousands of men may be extended because of her hours devoted inside the laboratory.
From Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, LDS Hospital is offering free prostate exams to men over 40 who have a family history of prostate cancer and to all men over 50. Hours are from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Call 321-5000 for an appointment.