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Dr. Mark Labrecque on AACR-Bayer START Grant Impact

The Stimulating Therapeutic Advances through Research Training (START) Grants supported by AACR and its funding partners represent a commitment to encourage and support collaboration between academia and industry. The combined academic and industry training provided through this program is potentially invaluable to early career investigators, allowing them to attain a comprehensive research experience. Selected fellows have the opportunity to work with one of AACR’s pharmaceutical industry partners for a year.

Mark Labreque, PhD, received the AACR-Bayer START grant in 2018. He is focused on identifying the mechanisms of response and resistance to fibroblast growth factor (FGF) and androgen pathway (AR) pathway inhibitors alone or in combination, in prostate cancer. The overarching goal of his research is to support a combination therapy clinical trial in men with AR-expressing metastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer.

What has inspired you to pursue prostate cancer therapies as your research focus?

I have always had a keen interest in biology and a curiosity around how cells respond to stimuli. This led me to the field of transcription factors and a fascination with gene expression profiling in tumor cells. The androgen receptor is a transcription factor that drives prostate cancer cell growth and serves as a primary target for prostate cancer therapies. Additionally, a collaborative research project during graduate school with the Vancouver Prostate Centre (BC, Canada) introduced me to a multidisciplinary community of scientists committed to the same goal of eradicating prostate cancer through novel treatment approaches. These experiences solidified a dedication to translational sciences with the ultimate goal of seeing my research efforts directly impact the lives of prostate cancer patients.

The AACR-Bayer Stimulating Therapeutic Advances through Research Training (START) Grant mechanism is a unique program, enabling grant recipients to obtain research experiences in academic and industry settings. How has this dual training experience been of benefit to your career and research?

As a postdoctoral fellow navigating career opportunities, I am profoundly grateful and honored to have received an AACR-Bayer START grant. Support for the research project has allowed me to develop as an independent investigator and produce data that could be leveraged for future grant applications. On the other hand, the 1-year Bayer placement opened my eyes to industry practices and potential career paths for PhD level scientists. I started my industry placement with Bayer in December 2020 and have been working on Bayer’s biomarker strategy for their drug development pipeline.  In this role I have served as a subject matter expert in prostate cancer biology, contributed to clinical trial design and data analysis, worked cross functionally to develop biomarker assays, and designed research plans to solve biomarker knowledge gaps for oncology assets. These industry experiences have also strengthened my ability to think more translationally and collaboratively for my academic research projects and have fostered industry relationships that could facilitate novel avenues of research. Altogether, I could not have asked for a better training experience and it has positioned me well for a career in either setting.

What do you consider the most important scientific advance(s) made, at least in part, because of your AACR-supported grant?

My research focuses on a form of advanced prostate cancer termed metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer (mCRPC). This disease state occurs when prostate cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body and no longer respond to hormone therapies. To date, mCRPC is incurable and therapeutic options for patients are limited. However, recent evidence by our group and others suggests that advanced prostate cancer can resist hormone therapies through activation of the fibroblast growth factor (FGF) pathway. Support from the AACR-Bayer START grant has been instrumental for testing the efficacy of fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR) inhibitors in preclinical models of mCRPC. While the research is ongoing, we hope to implement FGFR inhibitors in prostate cancer clinical trials and address an unmet need for life-extending therapies for patients with mCRPC.

How has this grant allowed you to pursue research that would not have been otherwise possible?

Investigating the utility of FGFR inhibitors in advanced prostate cancer would not have been possible without the support of the AACR-Bayer START grant. Grant funds went directly to purchasing laboratory consumables, experimental assays, and preclinical models of prostate cancer that were not available to me through other funding sources. In addition, grant funds protected my time and allowed me to focus on accomplishing research project aims. This was critical for obtaining the research experience at Bayer as the AACR-Bayer START grant fully supported my postdoctoral salary and benefits while receiving industry training.   

Please briefly describe the effect, if any, of being an AACR-supported grant recipient may have had on your career. For example, additional funding, increased collaboration opportunities, etc.

One of the greatest benefits of being an AACR-Bayer START grantee is the networking opportunities that are inherent to the granting mechanism. For example, I attended the AACR Annual Meeting in 2019 to receive my award and met fellow grantees and industry partners at awardee functions. These interactions established invaluable peer and mentor relationships that I have continued to rely on for career development advice and support.

Since 1993, the AACR grants program has contributed to the development of new and improved approaches to cancer treatment and cure. What is your vision for the future of prostate cancer research?

I think that the future of prostate cancer research has multiple prongs spanning physical and social sciences, but a better understanding of therapeutic resistance mechanisms and identification of new drug targets are key to overcoming the disease. Technological advances in DNA, RNA, and protein sequencing (i.e. ‘Omics) have greatly expanded our understanding of the biology of treatment resistance and have generated a plethora of data within their respective technologies. However, treatment-resistant prostate cancer is not a uniform disease (many different subtypes) and integrating the data generated from different platforms has been challenging. Thus, research to facilitate a multi-layered approach to tumor profiling involving genomics, transcriptomics, epigenetics, and proteomics is required. For example, implementation of artificial intelligence and machine learning to diverse tumor datasets may help stratify prostate cancer patients to clinical trials testing agents that are predicted to work well in specific subtypes.