St George and Sutherland Medical Research Foundation

Saving Australian men through earlier detection of prostate cancer

In the latest iteration of our 2021 SSMRF Grant recipient interview series, we speak with Professor Yong Li, Professor (Conjoint), UNSW, Principal Hospital Scientist, SESLHD and Head of Cancer Research Laboratory, Cancer Care Centre, St George Hospital about how he is aiming to develop new methods for earlier detection of prostate cancer. This research has been funded by a grant from Southern Cancer Care.

Professor Li

Meet Professor Li

Professor Li graduated in Medicine from the Henan Medical University of China in 1987 and subsequently completed an MSc. degree in Medicine at Henan Medical University, China in 1992. He obtained a Ph.D. degree in Faculty of Medicine in 2000 from the UNSW Sydney, Australia, and then joined the Cancer Care Centre, St George Hospital, UNSW. After three years of Postdoctoral study at St George Hospital, UNSW, he was awarded the US Department of Defence Prostate Cancer Research New Investigator Award in 2004 and then became an independent investigator. In 2006, he established the Cancer Research team and became Head of the Cancer Research Team.

With 10 years of clinical experience as a doctor, after obtaining his Ph.D at UNSW Sydney,  he turned his interest from clinical work to cancer research. Professor Li is very interested in prostate cancer research, prostate cancer is a major health problem in men in western countries including Australia. This disease affects over 20,000 Australian men, with more than 3,000 deaths per year. Late diagnosis and inaccurate risk identification can significantly affect a patient’s prognosis.

Professor Li is dedicated to studying new approaches for prostate cancer early diagnosis and accurate stratification for personalised treatment. He aims to develop a new method to help urologists choose the best treatment for prostate cancer patients and reduce tissue biopsy.

Professor Li has a career total of 140 publications and book chapters in cancer research. Most of his publications are in cancer therapeutic resistance, cancer diagnosis and new cancer therapy development. He has published papers and in peer-reviewed journals including the high impact journals: Blood, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Clinical Cancer Research, Medicinal Research Reviews, Redox Biology, British Journal of Cancer, Advanced Science and Advanced Materials.

Continuous innovation and moving towards new goals are the pursuit of Professor Li’s life. In his spare time, Professor Li likes swimming, climbing and gardening. He is happy spending time with his family and enjoying life.

Learn more about Professor Li’s research project

In December 2021, the SSMRF in collaboration with Southern Cancer Care granted $50,000 to Professor Li to conduct a new study – Validation of extracellular vesicle protein biomarkers in blood for the personalised treatment decision of prostate cancer patients – to help better diagnose and then treat prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is a major health problem in men in Australia. The current prostate cancer antigen (PSA) test is not reliable. Tissue biopsies are costly, uncomfortable, time-consuming and inaccurate due to tumour variation, involving some risks to patients. “In this study, we propose to develop a sensitive, non-invasive “liquid biopsy”: a rapid blood test to detect cancer development without a painful tissue biopsy,” explains Professor Li.

Liquid biopsy detects a small vesicle shed by cancer cells into the bloodstream, enabling earlier detection, better diagnosis and prognosis, and more accurate therapy decisions for cancer patients. These small vesicles contain important protein information and may provide a real-time snapshot of the entire tumour noninvasively.

This project aims to use cutting edge protein technologies to obtain tumour information by testing tumour marker profiles in these small vesicles from the blood of prostate cancer patients. The findings from this project will avoid unnecessary surgical biopsies and have an impact on the prognosis for many of the 3000 Australian men who die from prostate cancer each year.

The SSMRF grant will help Professor Li achieve preliminary results to then apply for further, larger funding applications with various bodies. The final goal for this project is to develop a new test for liquid biopsy for prostate cancer early diagnosis and accurate risk stratification to help urologists decide the best choice of treatment to avoid unnecessary biopsies. This project will be completed in May 2023.

“I expect that a new assay using our findings will be established applying liquid biopsy for prostate cancer early diagnosis and better classifying risk progression categories. This will provide an effective cancer diagnostic approach where one does not currently exist. This project study will provide useful information for using extracellular vesicle protein markers for prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment choice,” explained Professor Li, when asked about his desired outcome for the project.

The findings from this project will help urologists use the extracellular vesicle protein marker panel in combination with novel imaging tools such as multi-parametric magnetic resonance imaging (mpMRI) and Prostate Specific Membrane Antigen-Positron Emission Tomography-Computed Tomography (PSMA-PET-CT) to improve sensitivity and specificity for prostate cancer early diagnosis, to improve selection for biopsy, to improve prognostic risk-stratification in order to guide optimal treatment choices and post-treatment surveillance for earlier detection of recurrence.

This project aims to guide doctors in making treatment decisions precisely for prostate cancer patients towards improved health outcomes.

The project will deliver significant improvements in diagnostic accuracy and reliability for prostate cancer patients, and improve the survival of patients.

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