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11 March, 2015 - 00:25 By Kate Sweeney

Genomics research aids fight against prostate cancer

The Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich – TGAC

Prostate cells that appear normal under the microscope may hide genetic mutations that could develop into cancer, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The findings, published in Nature Genetics, show that in some men who have prostate cancer, non-cancerous prostate cells that appear normal under the microscope can have lots of different genetic mutations. 

The research – funded by Cancer Research UK (CRUK), the Dallaglio Foundation and the Wellcome Trust – prompts new ways to improve treatment for the disease. Prof Colin Cooper, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Prostate cancer is often made up of many small tumours with different genetic fingerprints, and it is still unclear what causes these different tumours to develop in the prostate at the same time. But this new research provides a piece of the puzzle that could help solve the mystery.

“The results suggest that large numbers of normal-looking prostate cells have a variety of genetic faults and cancer could develop from any of them. This could explain why prostate cancer is often made up from multiple genetically different tumours and suggests that prostate cancer development begins earlier than scientists thought.” 

The findings may lead to a rethink of prostate cancer treatment, in which these pre-cancerous cells are destroyed at the same time as the tumour cells.

Co-author Daniel Brewer, from Norwich Medical School and The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) at Norwich Research Park, said: “This study has sequenced the whole genetic sequences of multiple samples from the prostate for the first time – both from tumours and apparently normal tissue. 

“Surprisingly there were a large number of abnormal genetic changes found in the normal prostate tissue, suggesting that the prostate as a whole is a hotbed of genetic instability and is primed and ready for tumours to develop. This gives us important clues to how prostate cancer develops and has potential consequences to how it is treated.”

The research forms part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, a global project using the latest genome sequencing technology to reveal the genetic changes driving the disease. 

CRUK scientists are mapping the genetic history of prostate and oesophageal cancers as part of this international effort. Prof. Peter Johnson, CRUK’s chief clinician, said: “As we learn more about cancer we discover just how complex an enemy it is. But we’re developing the tools that can help reveal precancerous cells. The next step will be to establish treatments that prevent them developing into cancer.”

• PHOTOGRAPH: Next generation sequencing at The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich

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