Researchers have identified a genetic alteration that increases the risk of developing prostate cancer, according to a study recently published in Nature Genetics.

The prostate is a male sex gland that is located between the bladder and the rectum. Prostate cancer occurs commonly in older men and is the second leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States. Prostate cancer is typically a disease of aging. It may persist undetected for many years without causing symptoms. In fact, most men die with prostate cancer, not from prostate cancer.

The chance of an individual developing cancer depends on both genetic and non-genetic factors. A genetic factor is an inherited, unchangeable trait. A non-genetic, or environmental, factor is a variable in a person’s environment, which can often be changed, such as diet, exercise, or exposure to other substances present in our surroundings. The identification of factors that may contribute to the development of different types of cancer will hopefully provide the necessary information for developing better strategies for prevention and early detection.

Researchers at the University of Utah used the state cancer registry and the Utah Population Database to select families with high rates of prostate cancer. They then examined the DNA of 33 Utah families with excessive rates of prostate cancer and 127 high-risk Utah families. They discovered that a gene on chromosome 17 was associated with an inherited risk of developing prostate cancer.

The researchers found 4 alterations or mutations of the Hereditary Prostate Cancer 2 gene (HPC2) that placed men at an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Two of these alterations placed men at a high risk of developing prostate cancer, while the other two alterations placed men at a moderate risk. Men who carry one of the two high-risk alterations are 5 to 10 times more likely to develop prostate cancer, while men who carry one of the two moderate-risk alterations are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than the general population.

While scientists do not yet understand how HPC2 alterations contribute to the subsequent development of prostate cancer, they continue to explore the characteristics of this gene. As the dynamics of this gene are uncovered, the information could contribute to the development of new prostate cancer drugs that are designed to address this particular genetic alteration.

Although the identification of the HPC2 is a promising development in prostate cancer research, more research is needed before HPC2 testing becomes available. Until then, individuals who may be at a high-risk of developing prostate cancer need to continue to utilize the current standard screening procedures which include prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests and digital rectal exams. (Nature Genetics, Vol. 27, No 2, pp. 172-180, 2001)

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