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Removing a Protective Coat from Prostate Cancer

Headshot of Jelani Zarif, Cancer Researcher

With funding from an NCI career transition award, Jelani is studying how macrophages can lower the defense system in prostate cancer and allow therapy into the tumor to destroy it.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jelani Zarif, Ph.D.

Jelani Zarif, Ph.D., had a very early interest in life sciences, which his family encouraged. He was only 17 when he saw the practical side of the medical field by completing a nursing assistant certification program and helping to care for nursing home residents.

Jelani chose a career path in research to find better evidence to guide medical care. As an undergraduate student, he studied the effects of crude extracts from a Nigerian basil on prostate cancer cell proliferation. Research internships, graduate school, and two postdoctoral fellowships fed his interest in how to harness the body’s immune system to stop and eliminate prostate cancer.

As a postdoctoral fellow, Jelani applied for the NCI Transition Career Development (K22) Award, and within a year of joining Johns Hopkins University as an assistant professor, he received the award from NCI. The NCI K22 award supports investigators as they transition to independent academic faculty positions. Jelani had learned about specific NCI training awards and research grants when he visited NCI a few years earlier. He was thrilled when he received notice about his award and celebrated at a dinner with colleagues.

Macrophages: Metastasis-Supportive Factors for Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer treatments may initially work for patients. However, after a few years, a majority of prostate cancers stop responding to these therapies, and the cancer spreads, or metastasizes. Jelani’s vision is to find novel therapeutic targets to benefit men with lethal prostate cancer and attenuate metastasis. To do this, his NCI-supported studies focus on macrophages, immune cells that tumors can commandeer to circumvent therapies. Macrophages do this by providing the tumor with factors that support metastasis and suppress an immune response.

Jelani premises his research on the idea that if tumor-promoting macrophages no longer infiltrated tumors, then the cells from the adaptive immune system (such as CD4+ T cells) could better infiltrate the tumor microenvironment and destroy the tumor. Using animal models and prostate cancer tumor models, Jelani and his colleagues are investigating whether tumor-associated macrophages can be persuaded not to provide pro-metastatic factors for the tumor. He is trying to do this by altering how the macrophages take up an amino acid called glutamine.

“The tumor-associated macrophages are responsible for increasing the metastatic potential of the tumors,” Jelani explained. “If we target them, maybe we can impede metastasis and the tumors will respond better to therapy.”

Jelani’s hope is that his NCI-supported research will help scientists understand why conventional therapies eventually fail and why immunotherapies work for a minority of patients with prostate cancer. He hopes that, within 10 years, effective regimens and treatment methods will be available for all patients who present with lethal forms of prostate cancer or whose cancer becomes metastatic.

Skills for a Career in Science Research

Jelani knows that he developed a solid set of skills early in life that helped him in his research career. He also participated in science fairs and an after-school science academy in elementary and high school. His mother enrolled him in karate in second grade, and he played trumpet throughout grade school, high school, and college. “Both karate and trumpet playing required assiduous practice, balance, and discipline,” he reflected. “I carried those qualities right into the lab.”

Jelani mentors college-bound students, particularly those who have an interest in science. He encourages them and his laboratory staff to work smart, work hard, read the literature, and always have publication-ready data available. Those are some of the things, he notes, that can help them be better prepared for a career in cancer research.

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