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Key driver of aggressive prostate cancer found

A protein called β-catenin appears to play an important role in the growth and spread of prostate cancer and the researchers are increasingly confident that the protein could be an effective target for treatment of the disease.

The new study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, looked initially at the role of the protein in the healthy prostate. The team showed that it is important in the development of the gland, but does not play a significant role when it is fully formed.

They then looked at its involvement in prostate cancer. They looked, in particular, at how β-catenin interacts with a gene called PTEN which, when mutated or deleted, is involved in a high proportion of metastatic prostate cancers. They found that prostates with a PTEN deletion and a mutant form of b-catenin with increased activity have an aggressive form of cancer. They showed that this is likely to be due to switching on genes that enable prostate cancer cells to grow.

They also showed that prostate cancers which had increased β-catenin activity were independent of the prostate and highly invasive, meaning these tumours are those which spread to other parts of the body. They suggest that novel drugs which stop β-catenin from working, such as a class of drugs called tankyrase inhibitors, could be effective in the treatment of prostate cancer for these patients.

Study author, Dr Amanda Swain, a team leader in the Division of Cancer Biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, said: “Due to advances over the past decades, we can now successfully treat many prostate cancers. But there remain a significant proportion which grow aggressively and are hard to treat. This research gives crucial information about how some of those cancers grow and spread and indicates how we might be able to treat them.”

This research was carried out by studying the protein in mice. Now it has been shown to have promise as a possible target for treatment, the next step is to look at how β-catenin functions in samples from prostate cancer patients.

Dr Swain added: “We want to try to refine this work and identify which patients’ prostate cancer is driven by β-catenin. The future of cancer treatment will be about finding the right treatment for the right patient so this work is crucial to discovering if this protein can become a tool in the fight against the disease.”


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