New discoveries about the genetics of prostate cancer could lead to better tools for diagnosing the disease and selecting effective therapies based on each patient’s specific physiology
In recent decades, the biggest challenge for urologists, and for the pathologists who diagnosed the prostate tissue specimens they referred, has been how to accurately differentiate between non-aggressive prostate cancer, which can exist for decades with no apparent symptoms, and aggressive prostate cancer that kills quickly.
Thus, a research study that has identified unique genetic features within prostate cancer that can help determine if the cancer is aggressive or not, and whether certain drugs may be effective, is good news for men, for urologists, and for the clinical laboratories that will be called upon to perform testing.
These types of breakthroughs bring precision medicine ever closer to having viable tools for effective diagnosis of different types of cancer.
Genetic Fingerprints of Cancer Tumor Types
One such study into the genetic pathways of prostate cancer is bringing precision medicine ever-closer to the anatomic pathology laboratory. Researchers from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, which is associated with the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, have discovered that some tumors in prostate cancer have a genetic fingerprint that may indicate whether or not the disease will become more aggressive and less responsive to treatment.
Robert Bristow, MD, PhD, and Paul Boutros, PhD, conducted a study of nearly 500 Canadian men who had prostate cancer. Published in the journal Nature, the researchers examined the genetic sequences of those tumors, looking for differences between those that responded to surgery or radiation and those that did not.
According to a FierceBiotech article, approximately 30% of men who have a type of prostate cancer thought to be curable eventually develop an aggressive metastatic type of the disease. About half of the men who developed a metastatic form of cancer had mutations to three specific genes:
“This information gives us new precision about the treatment response of men with prostate cancer and important clues about how to better treat one set of men versus the other to improve cure rates overall,” stated Bristow in a University Health Network (UHN) press release.
In another study, researchers looked at 15 patients with BRCA2-inheritied prostate cancer and compared the genomic sequences of those tumors to a large group of sequences from tumors in less-aggressive cancer cases. According to a ScienceDaily news release, they found that only 2% of men with prostate cancer have the BRCA2-inherited type.
Knowing what type of cancer a man has could be critically important for clinicians tasked with prescribing the most efficient therapies.
“The pathways that we discovered to be abnormal in the localized BRCA2-associated cancers are usually only found in general population cancers when they become resistant to hormone therapy and spread through the body,” noted Bristow in the ScienceDaily release. If clinicians knew from diagnosis that the cancer is likely to become aggressive, they could choose a more appropriate therapy from the beginning of treatment.
Genetic Mutations Also Could Lead to Breast and Brain Cancer Treatments
BRCA mutations have also been implicated in breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, among some other types. The knowledge that BRCA1 and BRACA2 mutations could indicate a more aggressive cancer is likely to spark investigation into whether poly ADP ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitors could be used as an effective therapy.
PARP inhibitors are increasingly of interest to scientists. In addition to being used to treat some BRCA1/BRCA2-implicated cancers, two recent studies show that it could be effective in treating brain cancer with low-grade gliomas that involve a mutation to the gene isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH), according to an article published by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Researchers of the study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research investigated how PARP inhibitors impact DNA repair in gliomas.
Researchers of the study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine stated that they “demonstrate mutant IDH1-dependent PARP inhibitor sensitivity in a range of clinically relevant models, including primary patient-derived glioma cells in culture and genetically matched tumor xenografts in vivo.”
According to the UHN press release, the next step in using the knowledge that BRCA1 and BRCA2 may indicate a more aggressive prostate cancer is for researchers to create a diagnostic tool that can be used to determine what type of prostate cancer a man has. They expect the process to take several years. “This work really gives us a map to what is going on inside a prostate cancer cell, and will become the scaffold on which precision therapy will be built,” Boutros stated in a Prostate Cancer Canada news release.
Unlocking Knowledge That Leads to Accurate Diagnoses and Treatments
Research that furthers precision medicine and allows clinicians to choose the most appropriate treatment for individuals shows how quickly scientists are applying new discoveries. Every new understanding of metabolic pathways that leads to a new diagnostic tool gives clinicians and the patients they treat more information about the best therapies to select.
For the anatomic pathology profession, this shows how ongoing research into the genetic makeup of prostate cancer is unlocking knowledge about the genetic and metabolic pathways involved in this type of cancer. Not only does this help in diagnosis, but it can guide the selection of appropriate therapies.
On the wider picture, the research at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre is one more example of how scientists are rapidly applying new knowledge about molecular and genetic processes in the human body to identify new ways to more accurately diagnose disease and select therapies.