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York University Scientists in Prostate Cancer Breakthrough


7:20pm 16th April 2013

Vitamin A could help treat and prevent the spread of prostate cancer, according to research published in Oncogenesis.

Scientists funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research at the University of York have discovered that retinoic acid – a chemical made from vitamin A which is supplied in our diet by carrots, green vegetables and liver – can turn specific genes within prostate cancer stem cells back on, reducing the ability of the cancer to invade surrounding tissue.

The findings suggest that Vitamin A related compounds could be used to enhance clinical treatments for prostate cancer.

Professor Norman Maitland, Director of the YCR Cancer Research Unit in the Department of Biology at York, said: “Cancer arises from healthy cells going wrong. Certain controls can be turned off which allows the cancer to progress. For example, normal cells gain the ability to grow and invade the surrounding tissues.

“We have found that specific ‘twin’ genes are turned off in malignant prostate cancer stem cells. When we turn them back on using retinoic acid, the cancer becomes less aggressive.

“All-trans retinoic acid is already used treat another type of cancer called acute promyelomcytic leukaemia (APL) and has been hugely successful in improving survival rates. For prostate cancer, our work suggests that retinoic acid would not need to kill the cancer stem cells, but simply switch them to a more treatable form. Our discovery suggests a clinical use of this compound to treat prostate cancer.”

Nearly 41,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year in the UK, and although around 80% survive for five years, more than 10,000 men die annually from the disease.

Professor Maitland added: “It has been known for many years that low vitamin A in samples of men’s blood is associated with prostate cancer, but nobody knew the mechanisms involved. This is an exciting new development which links an element from our diet to prostate cancer stem cells.”

Professor Maitland and his team at the YCR Cancer Research Unit achieved international recognition in 2005 when they became the first to identify prostate cancer stem cells, which are believed to be the ‘root cause’ of prostate cancer. The team, now supported by a £2.15m award from Yorkshire Cancer Research, has since been exploring the exact molecular properties that allow these cells to spread, survive and resist aggressive treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.


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