The 2016 Nobel Prize for medicine has been awarded to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi for research into how cells' survival mechanism can go wrong, an important area for understanding how cancer develops. Here's why it's important to prostate cancer research.

Matrix cancer cells
3 Oct 2016
In - Research

With trillions of cells in our bodies, there are a lot of defences in place to stop any of them going rogue and becoming cancerous. To fight cancer at a cellular level, we need to make sure that any that do slip through the net are caught quickly and destroyed to stop them from spreading further.

If cells are damaged or are dying, they can be told to 'commit suicide' or start eating parts of themselves (gruesome, right?). This process is hugely important for keeping our bodies healthy. And if something goes wrong with this, it can lead to a whole range of diseases, including cancer.

That's why the 2016 Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded today to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work in the early ‘90s studying yeast to understand this process, known as autophagy. Autophagy can be useful for repair by removing damaged parts of the cell, or for survival by allowing the cell to ‘eat’ unnecessary parts if it is in danger of starving.

Autophagy might be important in prostate cancer, but the switching back and forth means that it isn’t clear how

This has helped us to understand the changes in cancer cells that allow them to grow out of control and resist triggers that should kill them. It’s thought that prostate cancer cells can disable autophagy at the early stages, allowing them to grow rapidly, but then switch it back on as they become more advanced to allow them to survive as they spread to other parts of the body.

It’s clear then that autophagy might be important in prostate cancer, but the switching back and forth means that it isn’t clear how we might take advantage of this to help men with prostate cancer.

A lot of current research is focussed on how we can make the cancer vulnerable to the body’s defences again. Some of our new Research Innovation Awards are testing ideas to make this happen and weaken the cancer against our current treatments.

Prostate Cancer UK will continue to fund exciting fundamental research that reveals the processes that trigger prostate cancer and allow it to spread

When healthy cells are damaged, a protein called TRAIL is released to trigger it to die. However, cancer cells develop ways to resist TRAIL and survive even after damage from radiotherapy. We are currently funding research into different ways to get around this problem. Dr Richard Clarkson at Cardiff University is developing a new drug to block this resistance from happening, while Dr Ralf Zwacka at the University of Essex is working to turn TRAIL into a treatment that can help make chemotherapy more effective.

While both of these exciting projects are in the early stages, it is fantastic to see a researcher who helped us to understand the basics behind the biology of cells being recognised for his contribution. Prostate Cancer UK will continue to fund exciting fundamental research like this that reveals the processes in the body that trigger prostate cancer, and those that allow it to spread. It's this kind of research that will one day allow us to effectively treat, and maybe even prevent, prostate cancer and save thousands of men’s lives.

We can’t fund this research though, or make sure it delivers, without your support. Find out how you can join the fight.

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