29 December 1999

A pain in the bum

by Kate Melville

Patients hate them and doctors aren't too keen on them either, yes we are talking about prostate cancer examinations; however they are a very necessary evil (and believe me anyone who has had one will empathise here).

Firstly prostate cancer is a big killer (40,000 American men annually for a start) Secondly, blood tests used to identify the disease are imperfect, giving a positive diagnosis in some healthy men while missing the cancer in others.

Given the importance of prostate cancer its kind of obvious that there will be a pretty concerted international research effort in it. One interesting piece of research was published in the December issue of Genome Research, by Michael Walker (Incyte Pharmaceuticals and Stanford University), Tod Klinger (Incyte Pharmaceuticals).

Their work seeks to assist with better diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer with the identification of new disease-associated genes. In the basic prostate cancer blood test, doctors look for high levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), an enzyme produced in the prostate and one of several genes associated with the disease.

With the biology of prostate cancer at a fairly basic stage, Walker's team reasoned that genes mimicking the activity of PSA and other prostate cancer genes would most likely be likely culprits in the disease. Using a statistical method called guilt-by-association to comb gene "libraries" for suspects activating in conjunction with known prostate cancer genes. This method identified eight previously unknown genes associated with prostate cancer, a result that should spur development of better diagnostic exams for doctors and patients alike.

So hopefully now prostate cancer may be about to become a bit less of a pain in the bum (literally).