Prostate cancer research started out as just a pet project for Girish Shah before he came to the University of Louisiana at Monroe two years ago.
But the breakthroughs he has developed in the last couple of years have pushed Shah's cancer research not only to the forefront of his own mind but into worldwide spotlight. His work was spotlighted in the Endocrine Society's Endocrine News magazine in July and more publications this month. Shah, professor of pharmacology, was featured last year in Cancer Research, a medical journal.
"We didn't expect we'd go as far as we have," Shah said. "It's become a lot bigger, a lot more general-interest and broader reaching. "It's been a pleasant surprise."
While studying prostate cancer, Shah and his graduate student research team saw how cancer cells "escape and spread" from the prostate to attack the rest of the body.
"That's what kills the patient," he said, noting they are learning how tumor cells can become resistant to treatments like chemotherapy.
They also identified a tumor marker human calcitonin that can be read to detect cancer in its early benign stages so it can be treated more easily.
"But we thought that marker was just for prostate cancer," he said. "But it's also detected in others like breast cancer and stomach cancer ... so maybe it's more common than we thought.
"So we're making a lot of progress and drawing more attention."
Already collaborating with the University of Florida, the progress is leading to new connections with the University of North Carolina and Pittsburgh University Medical Center to further the project.
Shah also started working with Louisiana Tech University's Institute for Micromanufacturing to develop a microchip-based test for the cancer marker that can be turned into a commercial product.
Muralidharan Anbalagan, a ULM post-doctoral graduate student, said he is almost too busy with the research to pay attention to the new notoriety.
"I didn't expect it," Anbalagan said. "But I know we're doing something important.
"I'm very happy to work with Dr. Shah on this kind of work."
Prostate cancer is a very underrated disease, Shah said, so the work being done there was important even before they realized it could be pertinent to many other forms of cancer, too.
Besides lung cancer, prostate cancer has the worst mortality rate in the U.S. of cancer types, he said.
That is made worse in Louisiana, where there is much poverty, less access to health care for many and more obesity.
Add those factors together and prostate cancer in Louisiana is typically discovered in much later stages in patients so it is often too late for them once they are diagnosed, he said.
Hopefully, his research will eventually buck that negative trend.