Finding metabolic target genes in prostate cancer

What you need to know

  • MicroRNAs are a newly discovered type of genetic material, that have potential to open up opportunities for better treatments and ways to diagnose advanced prostate cancer.
  • We funded Professor Hector Keun to research one microRNA, and learn why it alters how prostate cancer grows and spreads, and helps it become resistant to hormone therapy.
  • The team confirmed the microRNA as a potential new way to treat advanced disease, and have secured more funding to investigate microRNAs further.

We urgently need new drugs for advanced prostate cancer, and ways to treat cancers that have become drug resistant. In this project, Professor Keun and his team researched a newly discovered type of molecule called microRNAs, that could be a promising target for new drugs to treat advanced prostate cancer.

Honing in on a potential drug target 

This project aimed to understand how one specific microRNA, called miR27a, controls metabolism, the process of converting nutrients into energy or building blocks that allow prostate cancer cells to grow and spread. miR27a has also been shown in another project to be involved in helping prostate cancer become resistant to hormone therapies. 

Professor Keun set out to better understand the role of miR27a in prostate cancer and work out whether drugs against the microRNA could stop prostate cancer growing, or make it vulnerable to other drugs once it has become treatment-resistant.

Inactivating the prostate cancer energy generator 

Now at the end of the project, Professor Keun and his  team have learned more about how miR27a influences prostate cancer. They discovered it acts as a key controller of how cancer cells generate energy needed for them to grow and spread in the body. The team also found a new link between miR27a and the formation of fats in cancer cells.  These fats are used as important building blocks as the cancer grows.

The next step was to inactivate miR27a, and see whether it has potential as a new drug target. They found that energy generation and fat formation were disrupted when miR27a was inactivated. This is promising, as if a drug could be developed that had the same effect in men’s prostate cancers, this might be a new way to stop cancer cells dividing.

Opening doors to more ways to treat and diagnose advanced disease

This research is still in its early stages, but the project gives promising evidence that microRNAs can be used to alter metabolism and stop cancer growing. This can now pave the way for the team to develop new ‘anti-microRNA’ drugs to treat advanced prostate cancer.

Following on from this project, we recently awarded Dr Keun more funding to investigate whether the types of microRNA in men’s prostate cancer can be used to tell if it is aggressive and needs immediate treatment, or non-aggressive. This involves analysing a large amount of patient data on microRNAs, and looking for ones that are found more commonly in aggressive or non-aggressive prostate cancer.

In future work, we will support the development of ‘anti-microRNA drugs which block miR-27a in prostate tumours as a means to block growth of tumours.
Professor Hector Keun

Grant information

Researcher - Professor Hector Keun
Institution - Imperial College London
Grant award - £49,995
Duration - 2014-2015
Reference - PA13-016