Feb. 12, 2001 -- Researchers have taken a significant step towards unravelling the genetic component of prostate cancer.
Professor Johanna Rommens of medical genetics and microbiology and an international research team recently announced the discovery of a high-risk gene implicated in prostate cancer. “It is not yet practical to determine a genetic test that would be available immediately,” said Rommens, also of the Hospital for Sick Children. “But this study does provide a new starting point as this type of gene had not been previously implicated in prostate cancer.”
The team, consisting of 43 researchers from across North America, published its results in the February issue of Nature Genetics.
The researchers found two different degrees of variation in the gene, named ELAC2. One type of mutation places men at high risk for the disease while the other kind presents a moderate risk. Men who carry the high-risk mutation of the gene are five to 10 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than other men, while those who carry the moderate-risk mutation are 1.5 to three times more susceptible to the disease. Several other moderate-risk genes had already been found before this study.
Using DNA samples from a group of Utah families with a high incidence of prostate cancer, the researchers identified a target region on chromosome 17 that conferred an inherited risk of developing the disease. Rommens’ lab then worked on finding the precise gene on the chromosome using technology called hybrid selection which scans through genetic material.
“One’s genetic makeup is an important factor in prostate cancer but tracking down the exact genes has been extremely difficult,” she said. “The ELAC2 gene is the first prostate cancer susceptibility gene that has been identified from family-based studies.” Scientists found the previous moderate-risk genes through “educated guesses,” she added.
There are still several other unidentified genes that contribute to prostate cancer and environmental influences such as diet are also a factor, so the researchers say variations in the ELAC2 gene are probably only responsible for two to five per cent of cases of the disease. But they are still optimistic about the impact of this new knowledge.
Finding any gene involved in prostate cancer gives scientists new clues that help them in their efforts to understand the workings of the disease, said Lisa Cannon-Albright of the University of Utah’s medical informatics department, one of the co-authors. “Finding them is going to provide the key to earlier diagnosis and more appropriate treatment,” she said. “That’s going to result in less illness and death.” The Canadian Cancer Society estimates almost 17,000 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000 and more than 4,000 died of it.
Rommens was also involved in identifying genes that contribute to breast cancer and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
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