A genetic breakthrough could spare thousands of men from needless prostate surgery and radiotherapy.
Scientists have discovered a gene that determines whether a prostate tumour is aggressive or relatively harmless – potentially paving the way for a blood test that will accurately forecast whether it could become deadly.
This would help doctors decide the best course of action for treatment, while ensuring rapid attention for those whose lives are most at risk.
Scientists found men with prostate cancer who had an active version of a gene called ANO7 were 18 times as likely to die from their disease.
Scientists have discovered a gene that determines whether a prostate tumour is aggressive or relatively harmless
The Daily Mail has campaigned for almost two decades to end needless prostate deaths through better diagnosis and improved treatments.
Almost 50,000 men are diagnosed with the cancer in Britain each year, but the severity of the disease varies hugely.
Rapid treatment for the most aggressive forms is vital, and any delays can be lethal – with 11,800 patients dying each year.
However, if the cancer is contained within the prostate and does not spread, it is often best to offer no treatment at all – an approach known as ‘active surveillance’.
Until now, doctors have had no reliable way of telling which men are most at risk.
Due to the lack of a reliable diagnostic test, thousands of patients with early prostate cancer needlessly undergo gruelling surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy each year.
The new findings, published in the International Journal of Cancer, mean in future genetic testing could fulfil the as-yet ‘unmet need’ of diagnosing aggressive forms early on.
Researchers studied DNA from more than 1,700 prostate cancer patients and a comparable number of healthy men to look for genetic mutations associated with the disease
The researchers studied DNA from more than 1,700 prostate cancer patients and a comparable number of healthy men to look for genetic mutations associated with the disease.
Study leader Dr Johanna Schleutker, from the University of Turku in Finland, said: ‘We found that small genetic changes to the ANO7 gene increase a patient’s risk of aggressive prostate cancer.
‘Genetic testing for ANO7 could help identify these patients sooner and may bring new opportunities for precision oncology in prostate cancer.’
The function of ANO7 is not fully understood, but further research could also lead to new ways to treat the disease.
Dr Helen Rippon, chief executive of the Worldwide Cancer Research charity, which helped fund the study, said: ‘Those with the more aggressive forms of prostate cancer have the bleakest outcome, but if we can devise tests to diagnose them early on, we can do more to ensure they receive the best possible treatment.’
The breakthrough could lead to one of the first in a series of ‘liquid biopsies’ that experts hope will revolutionise the treatment of cancer.
In a separate study, published yesterday by the Institute of Cancer Research in London, scientists used blood tests and computer analysis to predict whether bowel cancer would return after treatment in 75 per cent of patients.
The researchers said the same technique could eventually be used for other cancers, too.