Prostate cancer affects more than 670,000 men worldwide, and researchers have known for a long time that the disease is fuelled by the male sex hormone testosterone. Men with prostate cancer are often given drugs that block the production or actions for testosterone in the body, and these treatments are often successful to start with, but their cancer eventually develops resistance and starts growing again.
Now scientists at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and the Weill Cornell Medical Centre have made a surprising discovery that could make a big impact on the way that men are treated, if the results hold true.
Led by Dr Mark Rubin, the scientists analysed the activity levels of more than 6,000 genes in 455 prostate cancer samples. They found that samples from more aggressive cancers appeared to be driven by a receptor for oestrogen, the female sex hormone.
To get a bit more detailed, around half of all aggressive prostate cancers are driven by a fusion protein, created when two important genes get spliced together. The researchers found that oestrogen can boost the activity of this fusion protein, fuelling the cancer growth.
But what does this mean for men with prostate cancer? We know that oestrogen plays an important role in fuelling breast cancer, and there are a number of very successful therapies for this disease that target the hormone. So this discovery raises the possibility that similar drugs could be used to treat men with aggressive prostate cancer. And, more speculatively, there’s the possibility that oestrogen or oestrogen mimics in the environment might be helping to increase the risk of prostate cancer, or fuelling its growth.