A team of researchers funded by Cancer Research UK is a step closer to understanding prostate cancer after identifying seven new sites in the human genome linked to men's risk of developing the disease.

Scientists based in the UK and Australia studied differences in the genetic structure of over 10,000 men in total, comparing the DNA of those deemed to have a higher genetic risk - because they had developed the disease before the age of 61 or had a family history - with a control group of men who were disease free.

The researchers then looked for genetic alterations found more frequently in men with prostate cancer than in those without, which led to the discovery of seven new areas of the genome potentially linked to the development of the disease, such as a gene called MSMB, which can be measured in the blood and so has potential for disease screening, and another called LMTK2, a possible new target for the development of novel therapies.

Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in British men (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer), with nearly 35,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the UK, according to CRUK. And yet, current screening methods – based on measuring levels of PSA (prostate specific antigen) in the blood - are unreliable and not offered on a routine basis on the National Health Service.

New test in three years?
But the data, published in Nature Genetics, suggest the newly discovered genetic variants are present in over 50% of all prostate cancer cases, and it is hoped that a reliable genetic test to sift out those most at risk of developing prostate cancer could now be available in around three years, helping to speed up disease detection and thereby boost survival rates.

Commenting on the findings, study author Professor Doug Easton, director of Cancer Research UK's Genetic Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, stressed that little is currently understood about how prostate cancer develops, and the results “will greatly improve our knowledge of this important disease."