Endocrinologist who won the 2007 King Faisal Prize for developing a steroid hormone therapy for prostate cancer.
Fernand Labrie is a true medical hero. His work into endocrinology, why and how hormones affect the body, has led to several lifesaving procedures.
From an early interest in the natural sciences as a high school student, Labrie went on to get a M.D. from the University of Laval in 1962, and a Ph.D. in endocrinology from Laval in 1966. From his home in Quebece, he ventured to England to study with Frederick Sanger, two-time Nobel prize in medicine winner, at his Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge.
In 1969 after a few years of postdoctoral training with Sanger, Labrie returned to “la belle province” and the University of Laval to found the Laboratory of Molecular Endocrinology.
It was in Quebec that Labrie made several of his breakthroughs. He found that by adding a hormone called GNrH to patients with prostate cancer it completely stopped hormones from the testes. This hormonal castration effectively ended the need for surgical castration.
With another discovery that blocked male hormones from being released by the adrenal glands, Labrie was able to prolong the lifespan of men with advanced stages of prostate cancer and completely prevent the cancer from spreading in early diagnosed cases.
Solving prostate cancer was a matter of hormones, so Labrie decided to start work on the opposite gender’s troublesome cancer: breast cancer.
Labrie found that hormone replacement therapy (adding estrogen to menopausal women) often was linked with uterine or breast cancer. Therefore, Labrie’s lab has developed drugs to prevent estrogens from binding in the breast or uterus.
By Graeme Stemp-Morlock
Labrie has spent his entire career studying endocrinology, the study of human hormones and their role in our bodies. His major accomplishments have come in prostate cancer and breast cancer.
In his early career, Labrie tested gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) and found it caused medical castration or complete inhibition of androgen formation by the testes.
Until Labrie’s discovery, the normal treatment of prostate cancer had been to remove the testes (orchiectomy) or treatment with high doses of estrogens, both with serious side effects.
Thus, it was a big deal when in 1979 Labrie found that after ten days of treatment GnRH completely blocked testicular hormone production.
However, the testes are not the only place that male hormones are released. The adrenal glands release nearly 50% of the hormones. Therefore, Labrie continued work and found that by adding an antiandrogen to treatment any androgens released from the body were blocked, severely reducing prostate tumor growth.
Antiandrogens are like keys that fit into a door but won’t open the lock. They are normal looking male hormones that bind to hormone receptors, but they are different enough that they don’t activate the receptor. Thus, the right key can’t open the door and release the cancer causing hormones.
This treatment became known as androgen blockade, and since the 1980s when Labrie first tested the treatment it has become standard treatment for men with advanced stages of prostate cancer. Moreover, androgen blockage has been shown to lengthen patients lives by 6-12 months.
However, it became obvious to Labrie that his treatment methods, while revolutionary and life-prolonging, were not going to save lives if prostate cancer was not caught at the early stages. Therefore, Labrie started one of the first randomized trial for prostate cancer screening at the localized and potentially curable stage.
As a result of that screening study, a strategy was developed to correctly predict and diagnose prostate cancer at the localized level 99% of the time, leading to quicker treatment and a reduction in prostate cancer deaths by two thirds.
Labrie also has studied endocrinology issues in women, most notably breast and uterine cancer. His group created one of the most potent an antiestrogens available for treating breast and uterine cancer, acolbifene. Labrie created acolbifene to stop breast cancer from spreading, since 50% of the time when you remove cancer it recurs somewhere else in the body.
Acolbifene has been shown to be effective treatment in breast cancer trials even after other drugs have failed. As well, it is unique as one of the few drugs developed in an academic lab from chemical discovery to phase 3 trials just before commercialization.
By Graeme Stemp-Morlock
Medicine is important but there are lots of interesting fields. So, go to school and learn as much as possible because we need many more high level scientists in Canada.