July 21, 2019 | 83° F

Rutgers professor improves prostate cancer treatment with data-driven therapy

Photo by mitrofanova-lab.org. |

Antonina Mitrofanova, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Health Professions and research member at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, is now using computer algorithms and mathematical models to fight prostate cancer. 

Antonina Mitrofanova wanted to become an oncologist, but a life change prevented her from being able to afford medical school. After switching her major to computer science, Mitrofanova, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Health Professions and research member of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, is now using big data to fight cancer, according to Rutgers Today

In her lab, Mitrofanova uses computer algorithms and mathematical models to predict how patients with prostate cancer will respond to androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), which reduces the amount of androgen hormones and prevents cancer cell growth to treat prostate cancer. 

ADT has been reported to improve the health of only approximately 50 percent of all prostate cancer patients and cause aggressive cancer in the other 50 percent. Mitrofanova’s computer algorithm, whose patent is still pending, analyzes a patient’s initial biopsy by looking at genetic and non-genetic markers. Knowing how the patient will respond before he or she undergoes ADT can potentially save lives and prevent suffering. 

“When the patient is diagnosed with prostate cancer, part of the biopsy is put aside and screened for these markers,” Mitrofanova said. “From there, we can determine which patients will respond favorably and which will be at risk in order to inform both the patient and physician if this will be the best treatment for that patient.”

ADT outcomes were predicted successfully 90 percent of the time using the data from biopsies and removed prostates of patients. 

“This approach builds a strong foundation for a more personalized therapy and, in the long term, can be included to improve clinical decision making, patient survival and cancer management,” she said. 

Although Mitrofanova’s study focuses only on ADT for prostate cancer, she believes her algorithm will broaden to other cancers and treatment types. 

Mitrofanova first became interested in oncology when her grandfather was diagnosed with prostate cancer. When she was 9 years old, her grandfather, a cab driver, volunteered as 1 of 60,000 “liquidators” who were recruited by the Soviet government to reduce the harmful consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Volunteers were exposed to massive amounts of radiation and Mitrofanova’s grandfather was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the cleanup. 

In order to help people like her grandfather, Mitrofanova completed four years of medical school in Ukraine, where she was born. She later emigrated to the United States to marry her husband, whose half-Jewish family fled to the country as refugees. In the United States, Mitrofanova was unable to afford medical school, so she switched to computer science and obtained a merit scholarship to study the subject at Brooklyn College. Later, she received a Ph.D. in computer science from New York University and post-doctoral training at Columbia University Cancer Center. 

Earlier this year, her research on the predictive algorithm for prostate cancer was published in the biomedical journal, EBioMedicine

Catherine Nguyen

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