Given the severity of the coronavirus and the fact that people with prostate cancer have a high susceptibility to infections, do these individuals face potential harm from getting the COVID-19 vaccine? In their research over the past 11 months, Brad Johnson, a second-year student in DMU’s osteopathic medicine program, and Yujiang Fang, M.D., Ph.D., an academic pathologist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology, found just the opposite: The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein involved with the COVID-19 vaccination actually reduces the survival of the cancer cells.
Their investigation, conducted with researchers at the University of Missouri, was published in January in the prestigious journal Medical Oncology.
“To our knowledge, our publication will be the first in the world to explore the link between spike protein and cancer cell survival,” Brad says. “While there’s still a lot to discover between our work and the clinical treatment of patients, we’re delighted to play a small part in opening the door for many potential advances involving COVID-19 vaccines and cancer treatment.”
The research is especially important as COVID-19 cases continues to rise and the emergence of the omicron variant. In addition, prostate cancer is estimated to have been the leading cause of new cancer cases among U.S. males in 2021, and it’s also estimated to have the second-highest mortality rate, the researchers state.
Brad and Dr. Fang used three methods to study the effects of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in vitro on LNCaP cancer cells, one of three human prostate cell lines commonly used in research. For their clonogenic cell survival assay, LNCaP cells were treated with the spike protein at different concentrations. They also performed a quick cell proliferation assay and evaluated cancer cell death using caspase-3 activity kits. The spike protein was found to inhibit prostate cancer cell proliferation and promote apoptosis, or cell death.
“We have populations who don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they fear negative effects. We wanted to know whether it would promote cancer growth,” says Dr. Fang. “If the vaccine had no effect, that would be good. However, even at a very low dosage of the protein, we start to see an inhibiting effect on cancer cell growth.”
A urologist who has performed numerous surgeries for prostate cancer, over the last decade Dr. Fang has focused his research on cancer pathology, cancer immunotherapy and cancer radiation therapy. He’s produced more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles, many of which he was first author, and he’s collaborated with researchers on campus, in other states and in China. Several of his investigations have explored the effects that natural chemicals in fruits and vegetables, including extracts of raspberries, kiwifruit, cranberries and celery, have on cancer cells. He was the lead author of a 2018 study that showed combining blueberry extract with radiation can improve treatment for cervical cancer, a finding that was reported by media around the world. He received DMU’s Outstanding Research Award in 2021.
“Many health providers say food is medicine. The foods we study are things the public can easily access,” he says. “These natural chemicals are going to open another way to treat cancer patients with less negative side effects, especially older populations who can’t handle surgeries as well.”
He and Brad are hopeful their latest research demonstrates the COVID-19 vaccine’s potential for “killing two birds with one stone,” as they titled their published article, and that it will spark further investigations on possible benefits for humans. In the meantime, Dr. Fang praises Brad for his hard work on the project on top of his earning good grades and serving as a teaching assistant in clinical medicine, osteopathic manual medicine and ultrasound, all while being a husband and father of a three-year-old daughter.
“His being a parent, husband, lab member, student and a team player with excellent interpersonal skills will make Brad more successful as a physician and colleague,” Dr. Fang says. “At DMU, we want to cultivate leaders in medicine. Brad is representative of how we’re training students. We are a small university, but even a small university can do something really groundbreaking.”
Brad says he wanted to do research in Dr. Fang’s laboratory because he knew the associate professor is “very student-oriented and focused on student success.” His lab experiences helped him understand “you can only be at one place at a time; when you’re there, be there 100 percent.”
“Dr. Fang was very understanding of my schedule, and this was absolutely a team effort in the lab and with my family,” he adds. “I thought there would be value in this study whatever the results were, but it’s really exciting to see that, yes, the spike protein inhibits prostate cancer cell growth.”
Brad plans to stay engaged with research under way in Dr. Fang’s lab while acknowledging he’ll need to focus on board exams this summer. He wants to encourage other DMU students to consider participating in research.
“DMU’s research programs and faculty not only help us grow as future health care professionals and scholars, but they can also have far-reaching impacts on the global community,” he says.