Studies of cancer in twins have revealed that 57% of all prostate cancer runs in families; one might say that this makes prostate cancer the most “family inherited” form of human cancer. For the last 20 years, the Prostate Cancer Foundation has been funding the detective work to figure out which single genes – out of 22,000 in the human genome – might be responsible for the most aggressive prostate cancers (for example, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes). Now, PCF-funded researcher Chris Haiman has made a significant finding, discovering that often it is not a single gene, but rather dangerous combinations of genes, that together severely increase lifetime risk for prostate cancer and run in families.
Here’s another way to think about this fascinating result. There are 100s of genes related to prostate cancer that you may have inherited from your parents. We now know there are several combinations of genes — think of it like a hand of cards you are dealt when you are born — that can confer significantly higher risk for aggressive disease. Haiman and his global research team also discovered that African American men are more likely to have been dealt a particularly bad hand: some of the worst combinations of genes for prostate cancer risk are unique to men of West African descent.
PCF has also spent many years trying to unravel the complexities of health disparity in prostate cancer for African American men, who are 76% more likely to be diagnosed and more than twice as likely to die from the disease. Using a comprehensive analysis of all the genetic risk data around prostate cancer for men of different ethnicities, including those of African descent, Haiman hopes to be able to create a test to assess a man’s lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer. This test has great potential, allowing doctors to identify men who may have up to 4 times higher risk of getting prostate cancer than the average guy; if we can get them tested and tracked earlier, we can save lives.
Because prostate cancer is 99% treatable if detected early, this “precision screening” test could be a game-changer for men’s health, as well as a key factor in reducing the overall disparity in death rate for men of African descent. More R&D is needed to optimize this innovative new test. As a next step, Haiman and team will make sure that cut-offs for risk groups are as accurate as possible, in the same way that the output of your cholesterol test places you in a high, medium, or low risk category for cardiovascular disease.