New research which may help men reduce their risk of prostate cancer is underway in Oxford, thanks to a major award from the World Cancer Research Fund.

Dr Ruth Travis
Dr Ruth Travis

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK. Though age, ethnicity and family history can put some men at greater risk, it is currently not possible to provide advice on lifestyle changes that may help reduce their risk.

The study, led by Oxford University scientist Dr Ruth Travis, at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, Nuffield Department of Population Health, will examine small differences in the blood of men who are at a higher risk. This might help identify men at greater risk of the most aggressive forms of the disease and also allow researchers to develop preventive strategies.

The work targets small molecules, called metabolites, which are vital for a wide range of complex biological activities that keep the body going. From regulating hormones, to repairing tissue and maintaining energy levels, they provide a useful guide to how we are doing.

Careful examination of the levels of metabolites may yield important clues about the causes of the disease. 

With the grant of £195,000 Dr Travis, will measure 150 metabolites from blood samples donated by men in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC), and she will look to see how they might be linked to prostate cancer.

“Metabolites provide a snapshot of someone’s health because they are either needed to carry out important physiological functions, or are a by-product of those processes,” said Dr Travis. “Fluctuations can tell us a lot about underlying health problems”.

“We think the metabolites might tell us a lot about prostate cancer, and could allow us to identify men at a higher risk of developing prostate cancer and to distinguish better between men who are likely to develop an aggressive form of the disease and those who will develop a cancer that grows much more slowly.”

Dr Travis hopes the work will shed more light on what causes the disease. “We can’t currently give men much advice about how they might lower their risk of prostate cancer, because all we know for sure is that it is related to age, ethnicity and family history,” she said. “It would be great if we can provide more evidence about diet and lifestyle so that we can give men the means to reduce the risk themselves.”

Dr Travis is particularly interested in how diet affects metabolites and in turn a hormone called IGF-I, which is associated with prostate cancer.

“Ultimately, we hope we can improve the current advice on how to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. If we can also help to identify men at high risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer, so that strategies for prevention can be tailored accordingly, that would be very rewarding,” she said.

Dr Giota Mitrou, Head of Research Funding and Science Activities at the World Cancer Research Fund said: 

"This research is important and we hope it will give us a better insight into the dietary and lifestyle factors associated with advanced prostate cancer.

"We believe a significant proportion of advanced prostate cancers cases in the UK could be prevented through a healthy weight. This Oxford University research will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of how diet and lifestyle affects the disease progression and could subsequently lead to the development of tailored preventive strategies.”