Park Receives PCF Young Investigator Award

Jung Wook Park

Jung Wook ParkDuke Cancer Institute pathologist Jung Wook Park, PhD, has been granted a Prostate Counter Foundation Young Investigator Award for his research project “Interrupting the aberrant cancer development sequence in prostate cancer progression.”

Park is one of 27 young investigators nationwide to receive this prestigious career development award, which is granted annually by the non-profit Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF)
to the next generation of promising prostate cancer researchers.

The PCF awards, totaling $6 million, “are intended to identify a cohort of future research leaders who will keep the field of prostate cancer research vibrant with new ideas, and offer career and project support for early career physicians and scientists who are committed to advancing the prostate cancer field.”

Park, who received the “The Kovler Family Foundation-PCF Young Investigator Award,” is the Rollie Endowed Assistant Professor for Correlative Pathology and director of the Park Lab. He joined Duke in 2019 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California —Los Angeles in the laboratory of Owen Witte, MD.  

Park will be mentored, on his PCF-funded project, by Jiaoti Huang, MD, PhD, (endowed chair of the Department of Pathology and director of the prostate cancer-focused Huang Lab) and Andrew Armstrong, MD, MSc (director of research at the DCI Center for Prostate & Urologic Cancers and GU medical oncologist).

Most men with advanced prostate cancer have a form of prostate cancer called adenocarcinoma. While there are FDA-approved therapies available to treat this common type, Park’s research could be transformative for the nearly 20% of prostate cancer patients who — de novo or through the course of hormonal therapy treatment — develop a more aggressive untreatable form of prostate cancer called neuroendocrine prostate cancer (NEPC).

“New treatments are urgently needed for NEPC,” said Park. “I am seeking to identify the essential genetic/molecular switches that control the progression of this common prostate cancer into NEPC and that enable NEPC to grow rapidly. Once these mechanisms are identified, we can identify current FDA approved drugs or work to develop new drugs that target these mechanisms, potentially preventing or reversing NEPC development.” 

Prostate adenocarcinomas originate in the mucus-producing cells of the prostate gland and still retain many prostate cell features, but when NEPC develops these cancer cells lose most of their prostate-cell features and develop features of neuroendocrine cells instead. Hence, as Park explained, standard-of-care therapies for conventional prostate adenocarcinoma don’t work in NEPC patients.

“It’s highly possible that hormonal therapy (the class of drugs used to treat prostate cancer) causes this phenotypic and characteristic switching. Recent findings from autopsy studies showing that 20 to 30 % of prostate adenocarcinoma patients treated with current therapeutic options had developed NEPC suggest that the development of NEPC might be a form of treatment resistance,” said Park, while noting that in rare cases NEPC can present as the primary type of prostate cancer before treatment has been initiated. “We need to be prepared for a fight with this emerging deadly disease.”

Park utilizes, in his research, a novel ex vivo 3D organoid culture system using human cells to both identify cells of origin for human prostate cancer and define key genetic drivers or determinants of prostate cancer development and differentiation. This ex vivo system, described by Park when he was a post-doc at UCLA in the 2018 Science publication “Reprogramming normal human epithelial tissues to a common, lethal neuroendocrine cancer lineage,” was recognized at the time as “….a powerful new tool to model and study cancer development in human cells.”

“The Young Investigator Award from the Prostate Cancer Foundation is a testament that Dr. Park’s past accomplishments and future potential in prostate cancer research is very well recognized by the field,” said Huang. “The field of prostate cancer research needs young people who will try innovative ideas and explore areas not considered possible previously. Dr. Park has the training background and the vision to take science to the next level.”

“Fostering an environment of interdisciplinary research and clinical collaborations, education and training is a critical mission of our DCI Center for Prostate and Urologic Cancers,” said Armstrong. “Dr. Park’s selection to the prestigious group of PCF Young Investigators this year testifies to his strengths and skills as a basic scientist and also to our team approach here at Duke to develop young investigators dedicated to prostate cancer research. I am thrilled to be part of this team and look forward to Dr. Park’s high impact discoveries around aggressive prostate cancer biology over the coming years.”

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