The holy grail for taming prostate cancer

Published by  Communications

On 1st Aug 2022

Sample bottle

UEA researchers have made a crucial link between bacteria and aggressive prostate cancer. Their discovery has the potential to slow or even prevent the development of aggressive prostate cancer.

The team have identified five types of bacteria common in urine and tissue samples from men with aggressive prostate cancer.

Dr Jeremy Clark, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said, “Little is known about what causes some prostate cancers to become more aggressive than others. We now have evidence that certain bacteria are involved in this and are part of the puzzle.”

This research was led by the University of East Anglia and funded by The Bob Champion Cancer Trust and Prostate Cancer UK.

The project is led by Prof Colin Cooper, who also leads the UEA Prostate Cancer Tests that are funded by generous philanthropists. The tests are focused on identifying aggressive forms of the disease in men.

How the discovery was made

The wealth of expertise at UEA means that researchers are also able to study how prostate cancer develops in the first place. The team’s world-first discovery is that the development of aggressive prostate cancer may be linked to specific types of bacteria. It was made after studying urine or tissue samples from around 600 men to identify five new species of bacteria that appear to be linked with the most aggressive forms of the disease. The team also developed methods of finding these new species of bacteria.

Dr Rachel Hurst, first author of the work and also from Norwich Medical School, said, “To detect the bacteria, we used many different approaches including whole genome sequencing of the tissue samples, a method which is being used increasingly as we transition into an era of genomic medicine. When tumour samples are sequenced, DNA from any pathogens present are also sequenced, making it possible to detect bacteria. We found several types of bacteria associated with aggressive prostate cancer, some of which are new types of bacteria never found before.”

Exploring the possibilities

“Among the things we don’t yet know,” continued Dr Hurst, “is how people pick up these bacteria, whether they are causing the cancer, or whether a poor immune response permits the growth of the bacteria. But we hope that our findings and future work could lead to new treatment options, that could slow or prevent aggressive prostate cancer from developing. Our work could also lay the foundations for new tests that use bacteria to predict the most effective treatment for each man’s cancer,” she added.

One of the most exciting potential consequences of this discovery is that higher accuracy in determining the risk of aggressive prostate cancer could reduce the number of men subjected to unnecessary invasive biopsy. The paper detailing the team’s findings, published in European Urology Oncology, estimates that this number could be reduced by up to 30%, depending on certain factors.

Prostate cancer is now the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among men. However, while 1 in 8 men will be diagnosed, 78% will live with the disease for 10 or more years. The number of patients with an aggressive, life-threatening cancer is a relatively small percentage of the overall total, but diagnostic methods are not yet complex enough to accurately predict which men are at highest risk. Overtreatment - the number of men subjected to invasive treatments, only for doctors to find after biopsy that their cancer was not, in fact, life-threatening - is a major challenge.

Identifying the causes of prostate cancer may allow the research teams at Norwich Medical School and the Bob Champion Research and Education Building to improve current tests or develop entirely new ones. It may also be the case that new treatments are made possible, or perhaps preventative measures to avoid prostate cancer becoming aggressive and deadly. The possibilities are simply endless. The support of our philanthropic community will help us explore the full ramifications of this discovery.

Extraordinary progress

Support from UEA philanthropists for the UEA Prostate Cancer Tests has made unprecedented achievements possible. Men were previously forced to rely on PSA tests, which are a blunt tool for diagnosis and do not allow doctors to understand the specific risk to life. Without that crucial information, far too many patients endure the most debilitating and invasive treatments. Their risk and side-effects can have a lifelong impact but, if the cancer was later found not to be life-threatening, the benefit might have been negligible.

Completing the UEA Prostate Cancer Tests and making them part of the diagnostic toolkit available to medical staff will improve the lives of millions of men - which is why urgent philanthropic support to complete the tests’ final development phase is vital. Prof Cooper says that the immediate and urgent need is for £100,000 to cover the costs of consumables for the laboratory.

To find out more about the pioneering prostate cancer research happening at UEA, please read the UEA Prostate Cancer Tests brochure

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