Dr. Robert Reiter: Breaking New Ground in Prostate Cancer Research


Dr. Robert Reiter

Dr. Robert Reiter is used to breaking new ground.

Only a handful of scientists were doing prostate cancer research when he came to UCLA a dozen years ago. Back then, in the lab Reiter discovered prostate stem cell antigen, or PSCA, a cell surface protein found in about 95 percent of early stage prostate cancers and about 87 percent of prostate cancers that have spread to the bones. An antibody that targets PSCA has already been tested in early phase clinical trials.

As a surgeon, Reiter pioneered the use of the robotic prostatectomy at UCLA and he performs about 50 brachytherapy procedures a year, implanting radioactive seeds into the prostates of men with cancer.

As the new principal investigator for the Specialized Program for Research Excellence (SPORE) in prostate cancer, Reiter was responsible for writing the renewal for an $11.5-million, five-year grant, first awarded in October 2002. Due to cutbacks the National Cancer Institute (NCI) had been making on large grants, many doubted that the proposal would be approved. But it was, and was among only a few prostate cancer SPOREs renewed over the summer.

Reiter serves as co-director of the Genitourinary Oncology Program Area at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, overseeing the prostate program. He also is the first urologist to be elected to the American Society for Clinical Investigation, an organization that honors the accomplishments of physician-scientists.

Most recently, Reiter went back to school to earn a master’s degree in business administration, all while juggling his surgical practice, research and administrative duties. The program strengthened his leadership capabilities and taught him managerial skills that can be applied to his roles in academic medicine. The business degree also will help him in his bench-to-bedside research.

“We took the discovery of PSCA from the lab all the way into clinical trials,” said Reiter, a professor of urology. “It was a true example of translational research.”

The prostate cancer SPORE also had success in translating research from the bench to the bedside, Reiter said. All five projects proposed in the initial grant proposal, based on discoveries in UCLA laboratories, were successfully translated into clinical trials. Studies included work on insulin growth factor binding protein-3 and an intervention study of a low-fat diet and fish oil supplements in men with early stage prostate cancer.

“We did everything we set out to do in the SPORE,” Reiter said. “I think the program is very strong.”

Going forward, Reiter is working with other scientists to develop PSCA as an imaging target to locate primary cancers and small metastases that are too tiny to be picked up by conventional imaging methods. He is studying the role of the androgen receptor in prostate cancer progression and metastasis. His laboratory also is collaborating with other scientists to study cancer stem cells in prostate cancer.

Reiter always wanted to be a surgeon, poring over books on the subject as a boy. His grandfather, an urologist, also influenced his decision to go into medicine. His focus on cancer came later.

“Cancer is an interesting disease. I liked the idea that if you could find it early and take it all out, you could cure people,” Reiter said. “But I realized that surgery is not enough, which is why I focused my academic career on learning how cancer grows and finding new ways to target the disease with drugs that kill it without damaging the host.”

Although he always thought he would pursue surgery and teaching in an academic medical center, it was not until he went to the NCI as a fellow in urologic oncology that he discovered an interest in research. There, he found that the laboratory work made his clinical practice more interesting, and vice versa. The synergy between research and clinical medicine continues to drive his career today.

After finishing medical school at Stanford, a residency at Baylor College of Medicine and the fellowship at the NCI, Reiter came to UCLA in 1995 to work in Dr. Owen Witte’s lab. He spent a year doing prostate cancer research under the tutelage of Witte, a renowned scientist and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Reiter said he sees UCLA patients becoming more invested in clinical trials as laboratory discoveries are translated into successful therapies, something for which the Jonsson Cancer Center has developed an international reputation. Those patients are becoming advocates for research.

“That will be helpful over the next several years, having those voices heard,” Reiter said. “I’d like to see UCLA get the recognition that it deserves as a center for the complete care of prostate cancer from beginning to end.”

By Kim Irwin, 2007