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With a focus on prostate cancer disparities, this researcher hopes to make a difference for patients

Kaustubh Datta, Ph.D., wants to develop new studies at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center to unlock why certain patient populations experience more aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

Man sitting at desk smiling Kaustubh Datta, Ph.D., joined VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center's Cancer Biology research program in February 2024. (VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center)

By Blake Belden

Kaustubh Datta, Ph.D., sat behind his new desk in the Goodwin Research Laboratory and reflected on what motivates him every day to study the biology of prostate cancer.

“It’s who I am,” he smiled from behind a pair of black rimmed glasses. “I always think if I can extend a patient’s life at least for a month, I would consider myself successful. As cancer scientists, we have the opportunity to do something that could make a difference in people’s lives.”

Datta joined VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center as a member of the Cancer Biology research program in February 2024. He studies genetic drivers of metastatic prostate cancer and how they contribute to disparities in patient diagnoses and outcomes, with a long-term goal of identifying novel targeted treatment options that can be administered for the treatment of aggressive disease.

“African Americans tend to have more aggressive disease when they are diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it is more likely they will die due to their cancer compared to white patients,” Datta said. “This is one of the major reasons that I came here because Massey is better positioned than other centers to conduct prostate cancer research where we can focus on those disparities.”

Datta’s scientific path formed roots in eastern India, where he grew up, completed his undergraduate education and earned his Ph.D. in Calcutta, nicknamed the “City of Joy.”

He credits his mentor Manoranjan Singh, M.D., an expert in protein chemistry, at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology for leading him to his lifelong career. Datta learned from Singh about understanding the structure-function relationship of proteins and how it relates to their biological functions.

“My mentor trained me really well, and I owe that to him,” said Datta, also a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the VCU School of Medicine.

Following the completion of his Ph.D., Datta came to the United States in 1998 for his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School in Boston. His whole department at the time worked in the field of cancer angiogenesis, which explores how blood vessels function and interact to support tumor growth. This was his first glimpse into the world of cancer research, a stint that would pave the way for decades to come.

“The whole concept of my current work came to me during my postdoctoral time at Harvard,” Datta explained.

Datta specifically studies a type of protein receptor — neuropilin — that is active in nerve cells. Neuropilin was identified to regulate cancer angiogenesis in the late 1990s while Datta was a fellow, and was found to guide vascular endothelial cells to grow in a specific direction that promoted tumor development. When it was later determined that neuropilin was also present in cancer cells and immune cells, Datta looked no further to latch onto the subject of his future research.

“Neuropilin is less studied. From that point on, I thought that is what I should do,” Datta said. “I was really fascinated by that molecule because it is very different from other receptor molecules.”

Neuropilin has two subtypes: Neuropilin 1 and neuropilin 2. More scientists were then examining neuropilin 1, and Datta set out to understand more about neuropilin 2. It was unknown at the time if both members of the neuropilin family had different roles. It took nearly 15 years of continued research in Datta’s lab to confirm they had significantly separate functions, and neuropilin 2 was directly involved in cancer metastasis.

I always think if I can extend a patient’s life at least for a month, I would consider myself successful. As cancer scientists, we have the opportunity to do something that could make a difference in people’s lives.

Kaustubh Datta, Ph.D., VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center 

While at Harvard, Datta mainly studied proteins in kidney cancer. It wasn’t until he began working with another mentor, Donald J. Tindall, Ph.D., at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, that the attention of his research would pivot to prostate cancer.

In 2007, Datta received a start-up grant from the American Cancer Society that helped launch his efforts as a junior investigator and carve a niche studying the role of neuropilin 2 in immune cells and prostate cancer cells, how it supports the spread of tumors into the bone and what influence it has in the development of treatment resistance.

Before joining Massey, Datta was a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Currently, Datta holds grant funding from the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Defense to further the understanding of neuropilin 2 in advanced prostate cancer and test the efficacy of novel inhibitor drugs in prostate cancer that has spread to the bones.

He also hopes to develop studies at Massey to analyze the cells of African American patients with prostate cancer at different points throughout their treatment to unearth genetic signatures or biomarkers that could explain why this population experiences more aggressive disease.

After three months at Massey, Datta values most the warmth and collaboration of the people around him.

“If people are friendly and helpful, then other things do not matter as much,” Datta said. “What I see here is everybody wants to help me develop the research that I want to do.”

In his personal time, Datta lives in Midlothian, where he loves music (particularly classical music), American football (Kansas City Chiefs) and studying up on history, stating that Abraham Lincoln is his favorite historical figure.

“He was such a down-to-earth person; he showed us how to go beyond ego. That is fascinating to me,” Datta said.