Thousands of men suffering from advanced prostate cancer have been offered new hope of a cure after scientists discovered the genetic cause behind 90 per cent of tumours.
Nine out of 10 cases of late stage prostate cancer can now be linked to changes in the DNA of sufferers.
And, in some cases, there are already drugs which can tackle those genetic defects which are being used for other cancers.
Scientists said the breakthrough was like uncovering the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for prostate cancer, in reference to the stone tablet which helped Egyptologists break the code of hieroglyphics. The research was hailed by charities as ‘incredibly exciting.’
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The study was led in the UK by scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, in collaboration with researchers from eight academic clinical trials centres around the world.
Researchers say that doctors could now start testing for the mutations and give patients with advanced prostate cancer existing drugs or drug combinations which are known to targeted the specific genomic aberrations.
“Our study shines new light on the genetic complexity of prostate cancer as it develops and spreads, revealing it to be not a single disease, but many diseases each driven by their own set of mutations,” said Johann de Bono, Professor of Experimental Cancer Medicine at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Consultant at The Royal Marsden in London.
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“We’re describing this study as prostate cancer’s Rosetta Stone – because of the ability it gives us to decode the complexity of the disease, and to translate the results into personalised treatment plans for patients.
“What’s hugely encouraging is that many of the key mutations we have identified are ones targeted by existing cancer drugs – meaning that we could be entering a new era of personalised cancer treatment.”
Nearly 50,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year in the UK and more than 10,000 will die from the disease when it moves into its advanced stage and begins spreading through the body. The new breakthrough offers new hope to thousands of men.
Doctors from the Royal Marsden and hospitals in the US studied the genetic make-up of 150 tumours from patients with advanced prostate cancer who have a slim chance of survival.
Nearly two thirds of the men in the study had mutations in a molecule that interacts with the male hormone androgen which can already be targeted by current drugs.
Around 20 per cent of patients also had mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes which are known to raise the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Signficantly there are already drugs which are effective at targeting those mutations.
The researchers also found for the first time that some people are born with genes which predispose them to prostate cancer, meaning that screening programmes could be effective at preventing the disease.
Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive and President of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: ” This major new study opens up the black box of metastatic cancer, and has found inside a wealth of genetic information that I believe will change the way we think about and treat advanced disease.
“These findings could make a real difference to large numbers of patients.”
In the next phase of the study, researchers will genetically sequence tumor cells from at least 500 patients and follow the course of their disease to see how they respond to personalized treaments.
Charities described the work as groundbreaking and said it was particularly exciting because changes to treatment could happen almost immediately.
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Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Prostate Cancer UK said: “This is incredibly exciting and ground breaking research. It suggests for the first time the list of genetic mutations to search for in order to build up a blueprint of a man’s prostate cancer once it has spread.
“What’s more is that many of the genetic changes they have identified could potentially be targeted by existing drugs.
“The next step is to confirm whether those drugs would have the same impact if used to target those mutations when found in prostate cancer.”
The research was published in the journal Cell.