Protein may lead to better detection and treatment of prostate disease, say scientists

Development of a more accurate screening tool for prostate disease could result from research into the secrets of a protein found in the prostate gland.

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

About one in four men over 55 will suffer from some form of prostate disease and 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.

Otago University 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.

But when it occurs in increased levels, activin C disrupts the normal regulatory mechanisms in the prostate, which leads to abnormal growth, says principal investigator Elspeth Gold.

Dr Gold and her fellow researchers have raised the hypothesis that in such instances activin C had the potential to promote prostate cancer development.

Their 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 one.

The current test for prostate disease is PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen), which does not discriminate between benign diseases and prostate cancers.