Q&A with Dr. Mitchell Benson

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We are proud of our long relationship with Dr. Mitchell Benson, Herbert and Florence Irving Professor and Emeritus Chair of Urology at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital.

In honor of Prostate Cancer Awareness Month in September, we are pleased to share more information about Dr. Benson’s outstanding prostate cancer research.

Tell us a little about your cancer research at Columbia.

Funding from the T.J. Martell Foundation has been instrumental in supporting new research directions for the studies of prostate and bladder cancer at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.  In the Shen laboratory, Martell support led to the generation of preliminary data leading to subsequent federal grant awards.  This is particularly important because it signals that the research is very significant (federal grants are very competitive) and importantly, the donors to the T.J. Martell Foundation are getting an excellent ROI (Return on investment).  In the past year, T.J. Martell Foundation funds have been crucial to supporting the molecular analysis of prostate epithelial heterogeneity by single-cell RNA sequencing. These studies have revealed a remarkable phenotypic and functional heterogeneity within both mouse and human prostate, showing that the luminal epithelial compartment is unexpectedly complex at the level of gene expression. This heterogeneity is further revealed at the functional level, as these distinct populations have different properties in organoid and renal grafting assays, suggesting that they may also differ in their ability to serve as cell types of origin for prostate cancer.  This is particularly important because the heterogeneity (variation) explains resistance to therapy.  The preliminary data from these studies was essential for the recent award of an R01 grant to Dr. Shen from the National Cancer Institute to support these studies going forward.

Funding from the T.J. Martell Foundation has been instrumental in supporting new research directions for the studies of prostate and bladder cancer in the Abate-Shen laboratory, particularly for generating new data that have led to subsequent federal grant awards.

In the past year, T.J. Martell Foundation funds have been crucial to supporting our discovery of a new genetically engineered mouse model (GEMM) of lethal prostate cancer that metastasizes to the bone with high penetrance (>45%). One of the main shortcomings of mouse models was our inability to have mouse prostate cancer mimic human disease, spreading to the bone.  Spreading to bone signals incurable lethal disease and having effective models that mimic the human disease is crucial to understanding resistance to treatment and for designing new treatments.  We have used lineage marking to the visualization of bone metastases in vivo and have performed histological and single-cell sequencing analyses confirm the authenticity of these bone metastases. We have performed whole exam sequencing of the bone metastases to show that they arise from a distinct sub-clone of the primary tumor, and we have done comprehensive RNA sequencing analyses which have defined distinct transcriptomic characteristics of bone metastases compared with metastases to other sites. Most notably, using cross-species analysis of the mouse bone metastasis signature with human prostate cancer bone metastasis, we have shown that the MYC oncogene is an essential driver of metastasis.   These novel findings will support a new federal grant to study bone metastasis in vivo, again ROI!

What prostate cancer research advances have you been involved with?

The team at Columbia University is a team.  We have numerous conferences where we exchange ideas and develop new research strategies.  As such I and everyone in the laboratories are involved in these advances.

Do you have a personal connection to cancer?

Thankfully I have no family connection to cancer but I have been a clinician specializing in the treatment and care of cancer patients throughout my entire career.  One cannot help developing a personal connection with cancer through my patients.  If ever I lose that, I will know that I have experienced “burnout” and know that it is time to retire.  I hope that never happens.  Not that I don’t want to retire someday, I hope I never lose my connection with my patients.  That is why I chose Urology as a specialty.  I wanted a long-term relationship and care for my patients is a caring and personal way.

What do you want men and their loved ones to know about prostate cancer detection and diagnosis?

I want men and their loved ones to know that prostate cancer is very curable when caught early and potentially lethal when not.  I cannot overemphasize the importance of prostate cancer screening with PSA testing.  Also, be aware that many prostate cancers do not need immediate treatment.  Although it is cancer under the microscope, its behavior is that of a benign tumor.  If diagnosed, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion.  The T.J. Martell Foundation maintains an active referral system; another ROI.