US researchers have shed new light on the way prostate cancers develop, in research that could one day lead to new tests and treatments for the disease.
The scientists, from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Centre, found that two particular chromosomes – the long stretches of DNA inside every cell – are able to trade chunks of DNA with each other, scrambling certain genes along their length.
This gene-scrambling generates new ‘fusion’ genes, made of one half from one gene, and one half from another.
These fusion genes then override the cell’s normal mechanisms and encourage it to grow out of control.
The researchers were able to identify a series of genes frequently involved in such fusions, and speculated that each may lead to a different ‘type’ of prostate cancer.
Dr Arul Chinnaiyan, director of the Michigan Centre for Translational Pathology, commented: “Each of these switches, or gene fusions, represent different molecular subtypes.
“It’s a more complex disease and potentially needs to be treated differently in each patient,” he added.
The researchers suggested that choice of treatment could therefore depend on which gene fusion is involved.
For example, the effects of four of the scrambled genes were found to be controlled by male sex hormones (androgens), which are known to fuel prostate cancer.
Dr Chinnaiyan explained that identifying which gene fusion was responsible for a person’s disease could affect the choice of treatment. “We would not want to give androgen to someone whose prostate cancer gene fusion is not regulated by androgen,” he said.
“Long-term, we hope this will lead to better therapies to treat prostate cancer. The key challenge is to find a drug that would go after this gene fusion,” he added.
Josephine Querido, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said that although the research is still at an early stage, the results “hold great potential”.
“Knowing more about the key genetic changes in a person’s tumour will help doctors to tailor treatment to individual patients,” she said.
“We hope that this research will lead to better diagnosis and improved treatments for prostate cancer patients in the future.”