The largest study to date launched to analyse the genetics of prostate cancer has unlocked 80 new drug targets, opening up a broad range of avenues for the design of new treatments.

An international team of researchers based at the Institute of Cancer Research in London got to work in harvesting the genetic information of 112 men with prostate cancer and combined it with data from a range of other studies. In all, samples from 930 patients were used. The results of the study have been published in the journal Nature Genetics

Thanks to the continuing improvement of technology, the task of extracting data has become far quicker and cheaper. Alongside this, the tools available for handling large datasets has also improved.

However, although a lot of advances have been made in understanding and treating prostate cancer, stumbling blocks do still remain. Study leader, Professor Rosalind Eeles, explained, “One of the challenges we face in cancer research is the complexity of the disease and the sheer number of ways we could potentially treat it.”

Dr. Justin Alford, of Cancer Research U.K., outlines another difficulty in intervening in prostate cancer. She added, “A major hurdle to making further progress against prostate cancer is the lack of ways to accurately predict how a person’s disease will progress, making it challenging to know which treatment is best for each patient.”

Once they were able to understand which genes were involved, they began creating a map of the proteins that are coded by these genes. After which they then turned to the database, canSAR, which combines data from studies, applies machine learning and helps to provide insight into drug discovery. The scientists found that 80 of the proteins that they had uncovered were potential drug targets. Of these, 11 were targeted by existing drugs, and seven other could be targeted by drugs already in clinical trials. 

Co-author, Professor Paul Workman, said of the new possibilities created by the study, “This study has uncovered a remarkably large number of new genes that drive the development of prostate cancer, and given us vital information about how to exploit the biology of the disease to find potential new treatments.”

He hopes that this work will “stimulate a wave of new research into the genetic changes and potential drug targets [they] have identified, with the aim that patients should benefit as soon as possible.”

Another challenge surrounding prostate cancer treatments right now is the way that the disease progresses differently in each individual. This makes it much more difficult to decide which treatment options are best suited to each patient. 

Dr. Alford hopes that “by greatly enhancing our understanding of the genetics behind the disease in the future, this knowledge could help doctors better tailor treatments to an individual’s cancer, and hopefully see more people survive their disease.”

Although we are still very much in the early stages of such developments, the next generation of findings may well be transformative to the field.