Using molecules to understand prostate cancer’s progression

01 June 2020


MicroscopeA study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) has provided the first large-scale description of molecules called “circular RNAs” in cancer. The research found that when levels of these circular RNAs were too high or too low, prostate cancer were more likely to have negative outcomes.

So, what is RNA?
While DNA is often described as the genetic blueprint of life, RNA is the critical intermediate step that allows the instructions found in DNA to be used to make the protein machines that carry out all work inside cells. Most RNAs are long and string-like but recent studies have uncovered a type of RNAs that form a circle.

Critical support from CCS
With the support of a CCS Innovation Grant, and a Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC) Rising Star Award (funded by the Movember Foundation), Dr Hansen He and his team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto conducted an in-depth survey of 144 prostate tumours to search for and study these circular RNAs and understand their role in tumour development and progression.

“It takes a whole community to move new and impactful research like ours to clinics that eventually benefit patients,” says Dr He. “This can’t happen without the support of Canadian Cancer Society donors, as well as supporters of PCC and the Movember Foundation, all of whom made this research possible. “

Their findings
The researchers found that, on average, each tumour had over 7,000 distinct circular RNAs. They also found that when circular RNA levels were too high or too low, the cancer was more likely to come back and progress and the person fared worse. Tumours whose circular RNA levels were on the extreme ends were also more likely to spread to other sites in the body.

“We identified thousands of a new type of RNA that have the potential to control tumour development and progression,” says Dr He. “The new molecules are extremely stable in blood, so they are very promising diagnostic markers and could also be used to predict metastasis.”

Dr He and his team also found that a subset of circular RNAs were important for tumour growth, making them potential targets for new RNA-based therapies.

What’s next?
The researchers are now testing whether circular RNAs in the blood can serve as markers to help diagnose prostate cancer earlier and less invasively and predict whether a cancer will come back or spread.

“Our study provided the first comprehensive, large-scale profile of circular RNAs in cancer. It opens up a whole new area of research in the cancer field,” says Dr He.

Do you want to help fund groundbreaking research so fewer men will be affected by cancer, as well as help reduce the burden of a diagnosis by providing support? Check out CCS Gifts, and purchase The Dad Project for someone you love.