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Research promises better understanding for prostate disease

Student in the ISB

Tuesday 11 August 2009 8:50am

Researchers attempting to unlock the secrets of a protein found in the prostate gland say their work could lead to the development of a more accurate screening tool for prostate disease.

The research, which focuses on the role of a recently-discovered growth regulator called activin C, also has the potential to characterise the protein as a therapeutic target that could one day be used to combat invasive prostate cancer.

Diseases of the prostate gland are of particular concern in ageing men. Approximately one in four males above the age of 55 will suffer from some form of prostate disease. Prostate cancer is a significant health concern worldwide; in New Zealand in 2004 prostate cancer was the most commonly diagnosed male cancer and the third highest cause of cancer-associated deaths.

The University of Otago biomedical researchers were recently awarded a $950,000 Health Research Council Grant to assist with the three-year project, which focuses on the likely role of activin C in promoting prostate cancer growth.

Activin C is a naturally occurring protein in the prostate gland where it plays a part in regulating cell growth.

Principal investigator Dr Elspeth Gold has however shown that, when occurring in increased levels, activin C disrupts the normal regulatory mechanisms in the prostate, which leads to abnormal growth.

Dr Gold and her fellow researchers hypothesise that in such instances activin C has the potential to promote prostate cancer development.

Their HRC-funded project aims to examine the function of activin C more closely, knowledge which will then be used to inform therapeutic or diagnostic efforts targeting prostate cancer. The research will also assess whether activin C in the serum of patients may be useful as a more accurate diagnostic test for prostate cancer than the current test.

The current test for prostate disease is PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen), however PSA does not discriminate between benign diseases and prostate cancers that will remain organ-confined versus metastatic prostate disease.

Early detection and timely treatment can reduce cancer mortality, hence the need to improve existing methods for the early diagnosis of prostate cancer.

"The ultimate goal of a prostate screening tool needs to be to detect biologically significant disease early enough to allow treatment,' the researchers say. 'PSA has, as yet, not met the challenge of discrimination between benign prostate diseases, organ-confined cancer and metastatic cancer, all of which require distinct treatments. This is truly the "holy grail" of prostate disease markers."

Dr Gold is a University of Otago graduate who has been working with Professor Gail Risbridger in the Monash Institute of Medical Research at Monash University for the last seven years. This HRC-funded prostate study will be conducted collaboratively with Professor Risbridger and Professor Helen Nicholson in the University of Otago's Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, therefore establishing a new international collaboration between Otago and Monash Universities.

For further information, contact

Professor Helen Nicholson
Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology
Otago School of Medical Sciences
University of Otago
Tel 03 479 5134

Dr Elspeth Gold
Monash Institute of Medical Research
Monash University
Tel 0061 3 95947316

Simon Ancell
Communications Adviser
Marketing & Communications Division
University of Otago
Tel 03 479 5016
Mob 021 279 5016

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