Ratna Chakrabarti on Her Advances in Prostate Cancer Research

November 2, 2015

New RC featured imageRatna Chakrabarti, Ph.D. is a cancer researcher and Associate Professor in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at the College of Medicine, where her research impacts a condition that affects 14 percent of American men during their lifetime: prostate cancer. Close to 2.8 million men live with this disease, and some develop advanced prostate cancer, which currently has no cure.

Chakrabarti’s decision to focus her research on prostate cancer became clear over time. She received her doctorate in Physiology from the University of Calcutta in India, and then traveled to the U.S. to pursue her postdoctoral studies in Molecular Biology under the mentorship of Sheldon Schuster, Ph.D., at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, now President and Professor of the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in Claremont, California. At the time, Chakrabarti was studying drug-resistant childhood leukemia. She followed her post-doc advisor to the University of Florida’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and then to the Cancer Center, where she continued her research. She praised Schuster’s mentorship as crucial to finding her own research niche.

“One good thing about him is that he always gave me the opportunity to pursue my own interest. He let me explore other areas that may not be related to what he was working on. And that’s how I developed my own career in prostate cancer research,” Chakrabarti explained. She noted that she was able to investigate different cancer types, their problems, and available methods of treatment, as well as consult with faculty at UF’s College of Medicine.

In her conversations with clinicians, Chakrabarti realized that there was a need for better biomarkers and therapeutics for prostate cancer. “Without knowing which patients will develop aggressive tumors, there is a general treatment for prostate cancer,” she noted. Because this blanket treatment may be unnecessary for some patients, she sought to find more tailored therapies and treatments. This pursuit lead to her pioneering discovery of target proteins for aggressive prostate cancer.

The next key question was to determine how these proteins were regulated. Chakrabarti delved into researching regulatory molecules–specifically microRNA (miRNA), non-coding RNA molecules that play vital roles in gene expression, because they regulate protein levels. The altered expression of miRNA is thought to have a key role in the development of drug-resistant prostate cancer.

“The advantage of miRNA is that it targets so many different proteins. If you modify one molecule of miRNA, you can regulate a variety of proteins,” says Chakrabarti. As a result, she studied a panel of miRNA molecules instead, since it could be used for diagnosing patients as well as for therapeutic targets.

One of her goals was to be able to predict which patients who would soon develop a resistance to hormone therapy or not respond to hormone therapy altogether. Through studying various models, culture cell studies, and clinical studies, it was found that some miRNA molecules are lost when prostate cells developed resistance. The miRNA depletion itself can be seen as a diagnostic tool for prostate cancer patients, and its replenishment can be used as a therapeutic tool. In the future, it may be possible to see if an enlarged prostate is malignant and identify which patients are developing tumors. This preventative approach can spare patients from receiving therapies that could cause an occurrence of drug-resistant cancer.

Chakrabarti’s work also involves dealing with health disparities. For example, African-American men are more likely to develop a much more aggressive type of prostate cancer at a younger age. By being able to predict the type of cancer a patient may have can potentially reduce health disparities with the African-American community.

Along with her mentor, Chakrabarti’s research has been aided by extramural and in-house funding opportunities (from the National Institute of Health and the Department of Defense), an efficient grant submission process through the Office of Research & Commercialization, as well as the strong infrastructure at UCF. She also credits her prostate cancer research collaborations with faculty at other institutions including Dr. William Grizzle, Professor of Pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has provided her with clinical specimens, and Dr. Domenico Coppola, a co-inventor and pathologist at University of South Florida’s Moffitt Cancer Center. These collaborators, coupled with her skilled and persistent curiosity, help to ensure Chakrabarti’s research continues to move toward an improved diagnosis and treatment for advanced prostate cancer.

Chakrabarti’s ongoing work includes researching the cause of miRNA depletion in advanced cancer cells. Her cutting-edge approach is heavily dependent on clinical tissue specimens, clinician researchers, and strong clinical partners. For technologies available for licensing, contact Benjy Neymotin for more information.