Newcastle University researchers believe new blood test could diagnose early stage prostate cancer

Scientists have developed a new blood test they believe could eventually be used to diagnose prostate cancer in its early stages.

Dr Jennifer Munkley, from Newcastle University, and Dr Benjamin Schumann, from Imperial College London, received around £525,000 to lead the study which focuses on changes in sugar molecules found on the surface of prostate cancer cells.

The sugar molecules are found in high levels in men with prostate cancer and can cause tumours to grow and spread. The research team are looking at ways to target block the protein, called GALNT7, that produces these sugar molecules, preventing them from forming.

Dr Jennifer Munkley, a Newcastle University researcher, from Wynyard, said: "One of the major problems at the moment is a lot of men are diagnosed with prostate cancer too late so the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body which unfortunately is incurable.

"But if we can find prostate cancers earlier there's an opportunity to treat them and cure the man."

The researchers hope the test could eventually be used to test for prostate cancer and treat the disease.

There is no routine screening programme for the condition in the UK, because the NHS says the current test is unreliable.

The new test works by taking a blood sample from the patient, which is analysed to look for changes in the sugars which coat the body's cells.

The sample can then be used to detect for the growth of any cancer.

The team based at Newcastle's Centre for Life is taking the work a step further by looking closely at these sugar molecules to develop smarter, more precise treatments for prostate cancer.

The research team is based at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. Credit: PA Images

Dr Munkley said: “We are going to test whether existing drugs can be used to block this protein and use state-of-the-art techniques to create new drugs that target it.

"We will also work with patients to discover whether monitoring this protein will enable more personalised prostate cancer treatment.”  

The Newcastle University project has been funded as part of Prostate Cancer UK’s Research Innovation Awards (RIAs), a £3m investment across seven UK institutions in the latest advancements to defeat prostate cancer.  

Simon Grieveson from Prostate Cancer UK said: "The overarching goal of this project is to explore these sugar molecules that are expressed by prostate cancer cells and to develop new tests and treatments which may be able to detect the cancer.

"This could potentially develop targeted treatments which could stop the cancer from growing and spreading round the body."

The research is welcomed by the Newcastle geneticist Professor Sir John Burn, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer almost five years ago.

After surgery, he looks to have been cured from the disease. But he says too many men fall victim to the disease. Professor Burn said: "The stats are really quite scary - 4,000 or 5,000 women will get breast cancer this month and may be 120 of them will die of it. 4,000 or 5,000 men will get prostate cancer this month and 1,000 will die of it."

He added: "We need more effective screening and more men to join in that process."

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