Wesley de Wit wins Voorjaarsdagen Research Award

Veterinary Medicine Honours student Wesley de Wit was presented with the Voorjaarsdagen Research Award at the Voorjaarsdagen event on 19, 20 and 21 April 2017. He won the prize for his research into abirateron as a potential new therapy to treat Cushing’s disease in canines.

Prior to the Voorjaarsdagen event, researchers submitted summaries of their research, and a select few were asked to give a 12-minute presentation, followed by a three-minute question-and-answer session during the event. A total of 16 participants were nominated for the Research Award, including a few international researchers. But Utrecht University’s own Wesley de Wit was named the winner and presented with a prize for his research.

De Wit studies a new drug therapy using the pharmaceutical abirateron to treat Cushing’s disease in dogs. Cushing’s disease occurs when the adrenal gland produces too much of the hormone cortisol, whether due to excessive production of ACTH (a hormone that stimulates the adrenal cortext) due to a tumour of the hypophysis, or due to a tumour on the adrenal cortex itself.

Undesired side effects

Abirateron inhibits the activity of CYP17, an enzyme that is necessary for the production of hormones such as cortisol and testosterone. Abirateron is already used to inhibit the production of testosterone in men suffering from castration-resistant prostate cancer, a form of prostate cancer in which the prostate tumour produces testosterone, causing excess production of the hormone. The most common side effect encountered by these patients is a condition known as ‘hypocortisolism’ which means that the adrenal cortex does not produce enough cortisol. In men with prostate cancer, the reduction of cortisol production is an undesirable side effect of using abirateron, but in dogs suffering from Cushing’s disease, this is actually the goal of the therapy.

Potential therapy for Cushing’s disease

De Wit was therefore interested in testing whether abirateron might be a suitable therapy for dogs suffering from Cushing’s disease. He tested the drug on a culture of living canine adrenal cells, and discovered that abirateron can inhibit more than 90% of the cortisol production without affecting the viability of the cells. This result presents the potential for an interesting new therapy to treat Cushing’s disease.

De Wit is a member of the Comparative and Translational Oncology research group, under the supervision of Karin Sanders and Sara Galac. He earned his Bachelor's degree 'with distinction' in 2016, after which he enrolled in the Honours programme in September.