Using sugars to diagnose aggressive prostate cancer

What you need to know

  • Currently we use the PSA test to help diagnose prostate cancer. But this can be unreliable, and miss aggressive cancers that need urgent treatment.
  • We’re funding professor Mendes to re-invent the PSA test, to make it able to detect not just the presence of cancer, but also how aggressive it is.
  • One day, her new test could transform how we diagnose prostate cancer.
Beating prostate cancer is all about early detection. One day this technology could be used to detect prostate cancer in the first instance – the long-term aim is to replace the PSA test.
Professor Paula Mendes

We have tests to diagnose prostate cancer, however these miss some cancers and falsely detect others. This means many men with aggressive prostate cancer don’t get the treatment they need fast enough, and men with less dangerous prostate cancer undergo unnecessary treatments. Professor Mendes wants to build a new test, that can accurately determine how aggressive a prostate cancer is.

A different look at the PSA test

Prostate specific antigen (PSA) is a protein produced normally by the prostate. A raised PSA level might indicate that there is a problem with the prostate, but not necessarily cancer. New research suggests that there are over 50 different forms of PSA, all with the same protein but with different sugars attached to it. Different types of sugars are associated with different problems with the prostate, including aggressive prostate cancer. Professor Mendes wants to make the most of this information, and develop a test that determines whether a man has aggressive prostate cancer based on the types of PSA in his blood.

Using nanoparticles to make big impact

The test will use coloured nanoparticles that contain a ‘pocket’ which specifically binds PSA forms associated with aggressive prostate cancer. The nanoparticles can then be added to men’s PSA samples, and the number of nanoparticles that bind can be used to work out how aggressive the cancer is. The team will test the nanoparticles on samples from men with aggressive prostate cancer, as well as non-aggressive prostate cancer and enlarged prostates, which also have raised PSA levels, to work out what level of nanoparticle binding means a man has aggressive cancer.

Taking their new test to the clinic

If the team show that their test successfully diagnoses aggressive prostate cancers, they will apply for funding for a clinical trial. If this is successful, the test can be used in the clinic to help doctors determine which men need immediate treatment for their prostate cancers. The test could also be used to help monitor men who are undergoing active surveillance for non-aggressive prostate cancer.

Grant information

Reference -  RIA17-ST2-020 
Researcher - 
 Professor Paula Mendes
Institution -  University of Birmingham   
Award- £274,945.00