Prostate cancer: pushing the boundaries


    Since our last update, researchers at UEA have continued to make great strides in their pursuit to revolutionise the identification, testing and treatment of prostate cancer.  

    In the UK, 1 in 8 men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. However, current tests to diagnose the disease can be unreliable. Treatments can be painful, invasive and, surprisingly, not always necessary as most cases of prostate cancer are harmless. 

    Thanks to the generous support of our donors, UEA’s groundbreaking work to understand what might cause this disease and transform diagnostic testing continues apace.

    Pioneering PUR test to help even more patients

    UEA researchers continue their work towards developing pioneering tests to revolutionise current diagnostic processes, making it easier for doctors to spot prostate cancer – and its severity – earlier.  

    Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests – the current method for investigating prostate cancer – can be unreliable and do not dependably distinguish life-threating prostate cancer from harmless disease.

    Our research team, led by Professor Colin Cooper, is developing two tests – the Prostate Urine Risk (PUR) test which allows doctors to check a patients’ risk of cancer via a simple urine sample and the revolutionary Tiger test, a clinical procedure which enables clinicians to reliably establish aggressive ‘tiger’ cancers from lower-risk ones. 

    Only 10% of men with prostate cancer will go on to develop life-threatening symptoms, meaning the development of more accurate and non-invasive testing processes could improve the lives of millions of men who would otherwise be forced to undergo unnecessary surgical procedures to establish the severity of their cancer and need for treatment.  

    A major breakthrough in targeting treatment needs 

    Excitingly, Prof Cooper’s team has made a major breakthrough in the development of the Prostate Urine Risk (PUR) test thanks to a study partly funded by UEA philanthropists, meaning we are getting closer to transforming the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer.

    Initially, the PUR test could identify aggressive cancers, which need immediate treatment, and lower-risk cancers, which do not usually need treatment. And now a new study has found a way to help with cancers posing an intermediate risk. The improved PUR tests will enable researchers to monitor the rate at which the cancer is developing, providing information that could aid treatment decisions for those at intermediate risk. 

    “It can show us which people at intermediate risk may require treatment and which may instead be managed conservatively with surveillance’, lead researcher for Prostate Urine Risk, Dr Jeremy Clark explains. “Around half of those diagnosed with prostate cancer fall into this intermediate risk group and the treatment pathways for them have been less clear, until now.”

    The improved test is now being validated in a larger-scale study across multiple sites. 

    Thanks to your support, we are getting closer to the day when tests like the improved PUR can be made available worldwide.

    New discovery reveals prostate cancer origins 

    Researchers in UEA’s Cancer Genetics team have made an important discovery about how prostate cancer begins to develop.

    Cancers form because of changes in DNA, the genetic code for life, that appear in every cell. Usually when looking for the causes of cancer, researchers look at DNA in the cancerous cells themselves.

    However, noticing that cancer often presents in multiple locations in the prostate, lead researcher and bioinformatics team lead, Professor Daniel Brewer wanted to look deeper and find out if seemingly healthy cells in the prostate also show genetic changes – and whether this might help explain how prostate cancer begins.

    Thanks to the power of philanthropy, Prof Brewer was able to lead a study investigating these questions. Using state-of-the-art sequencing technology and bioinformatic techniques, the team analysed 121 tissue samples from the prostates of 37 people with and without prostate cancer. 

    Prof Brewer said: “We found that ‘normal’ prostate cells in people who had prostate cancer had more mutations (changes in the DNA) than ‘normal’ prostate cells in people without prostate cancer. The ‘normal’ prostate cells in those who have prostate cancer appear to provide a beneficial environment for prostate cancer cells to develop and grow.”

    Exploring new possibilities 

    This discovery opens up new avenues which could lead to life-saving treatments. It indicates that prostate cancer treatments may be more effective if they target the whole prostate, rather than only targeting the tumours within the prostate.

    It also improves our understanding of prostate cancer’s origin. With further research, this discovery may help develop treatments to prevent prostate cancers from developing.

    Advancing towards accreditation 

    Funding from our community of supporters has enabled our researchers to make great strides in their work to develop better, more efficient testing for suspected prostate cancer. 

    Securing official accreditation for Prof Cooper’s diagnostic laboratory will bring us another step closer to making UEA’s prostate cancer tests available to the millions of patients who need them. 

    Trusted results

    Accreditation will verify the integrity, impartiality and capability of UEA’s prostate cancer lab, proving to authorities and clinicians that ours are results they can trust.

    In order to qualify, our lab team must demonstrate they are able to perform testing to the highest industry standards to ensure consistent processes and accurate results. Each step in the process is tested, mapped and confirmed 

    The team must also show they hold reliable gene sequencing abilities. To do this, researchers need to collect sufficient complex genetic data from prostate cancer samples. We are about halfway to achieving this goal.

    The accreditation process is long, costly and labour-intensive. But it will mean the lab can analyse test results for the NHS and other health organisations. Making UEA’s prostate cancer tests part of routine testing for medical staff will improve the lives of millions of men – which is why philanthropic support to complete the accreditation phase is vital. Prof Cooper says that the immediate and urgent need is for £1.15 million to complete the process. 

    We hope to submit for accreditation in the second quarter of 2023.

    The difference your support makes 

    Tests like the PUR could spare millions from unnecessary, life-altering surgeries, and allow people needing treatment to get it sooner. Discoveries, such as the role of the whole prostate in causing cancer, pave the way for better tests and better treatment for patients.

    Prof Colin Cooper, UEA prostate cancer lead, gives his heartfelt thanks for your support: “The work of UEA’s prostate cancer team is only possible because of donors. We can’t thank you enough for the part you’re playing in this transformative research.”

    Read more about our work in prostate cancer here.