Department of Urology

Robert L. Vessella

Professor Emeritus, Research

Retired Emeritus



Professor Emeritus Robert Vessella, Jr., Ph.D., was the Founding Director of the GU Cancer Research Lab in the Department of Urology and former Vice-Chair of the Department of Urology. He held an adjunct appointment in the UW Department of Pathology. Dr. Vessella completed his Ph.D. in microbiology/immunology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and did a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer immunotherapy at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Dr. Vessella’s research focused on the mechanisms of prostate cancer metastasis to bone.  Overall, these studies included (a) the development of xenograft models which mimicked the human disease and the conduct of pre-clinical studies, (b) translational efforts in the molecular detection of disseminated tumor cells within the bone marrow prior to clinical symptoms and (c) novel treatment strategies for bone metastases.

In his three decades of research, Dr. Vessella and his team at team at the GU Cancer research Lab developed and characterized ~30 novel patient-derived prostate cancer xenografts. From several of these lines the lab developed castration resistant prostate cancer models and models which mimic the osteoblastic bone remodeling response seen in patients with advanced prostate cancer. Many of the pre-clinical studies involved collaborations with investigators in industry or academia who had developed novel therapeutic agents, especially those that directly targeted tumors within the bone microenvironment or indirectly impacted tumor growth by targeting the bone microenvironment itself.  Understanding the biology of the osteoblastic response was a key interest of the lab group.

In parallel with the development and use of prostate cancer xenograft lines, the GU Cancer Research Lab established an extensive biospecimen repository consisting of serum, plasma and tissue from prostate cancer patients and appropriate controls. One of the key components of this effort was the rapid autopsy program which enabled acquisition of metastatic sites within a few hours of death from patients who had expired with advanced prostate cancer.  At the time of Dr. Vessella’s retirement the lab had performed over 100 rapid autopsies, resulting in thousands of acquired metastases.  Like the xenograft models, these biospecimens were shared with investigators worldwide.