Caring Currents

Prostate Cancer Breakthrough Could Determine Whose Disease Is Aggressive, Whose Isn't

Last updated: Feb 18, 2009

senior man driving

Finally, a breakthrough that could actually make a huge difference in the lives of prostate cancer patients -- and their partners and families.

A team from the University of Michigan led by Arun Chinnaiyan, one of cancer research's rising stars, has discovered that levels of an obscure amino acid called sarcosine rise as prostate cancer cells become aggressive and begin to invade surrounding tissue.

Since sarcosine can be measured in the urine, the discovery could lead to a noninvasive test to distinguish slow-growing prostate tumors from aggressive ones. In the study, sarcosine proved to be a better indicator of advancing prostate cancer than PSA, the biomarker used in current tests.

The most common complaint we hear from prostate cancer patients and their loved ones is that early stage cancers get treated with surgery and other aggressive treatments when it might not be necessary.

Since doctors don't know which tumors are slow growing and which are aggressive, they end up taking a "better safe than sorry" approach. But the unfortunate result is that  many men are left afterwards struggling with side effects such as erection and urinary problems while wondering if the procedure was necessary in the first place.

I hear from many prostate cancer patients and their wives expressing shock and distress at the extent of the side effects they're experiencing as a result of prostate surgery, hormone therapy, and other treatments.

If the University of Michigan findings test out further, doctors would be able to let much greater numbers of men remain in the "watchful waiting" category before subjecting them to risky treatments.

In his blog Advanced Prostate Cancer, Joel Nowak explains that another exciting aspect of this discovery is that it suggests drugs could be developed to block the metabolism of sarcosine and prevent prostate tumors from becoming invasive.

The research, part of a new and rather obscure branch of science known as metabolomics, was sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and published in the February 12th issue of the journal Nature. Using mass spectrometry, the team actually identified ten different metabolites, or chemicals, that appeared to be biomarkers for prostate cancer growth. They will further explore the data to see if any of the other metabolites could be included with sarcosine in a monitoring test for prostate cancer patients. Stay tuned.