Discovery of bacteria linked to prostate cancer hailed as potential breakthrough

Scientists have discovered bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer in work hailed as a potential revolution for the prevention and treatment of the most deadly form of the disease.

Researchers led by the University of East Anglia performed sophisticated genetic analyses on the urine and prostate tissue of more than 600 men with and without prostate cancer and found five species of bacteria linked to rapid progression of the disease.

The study does not prove that the bacteria drive or exacerbate prostate cancer, but if work now under way confirms their role, researchers can develop tests to identify men most at risk and potentially find antibiotics to prevent the cancer from claiming thousands of lives each year.

“This is an exciting discovery that has the potential to truly revolutionise treatment for men,” said Dr Hayley Luxton of Prostate Cancer UK, which co-funded the research.

Writing in the journal European Urology Oncology, the scientists describe how their genetic investigations found five species of bacteria – three new to science – that were associated with advanced prostate cancer. Men who had one or more of the species in their urine, prostate or tumour tissue were 2.6 times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease than men who did not.

Lead scientist Colin Cooper, a professor of cancer genetics at the University of East Anglia, said it was possible the bacteria are not involved in the disease. For example, men with more aggressive prostate cancer may have immune system deficiencies that allow certain bacteria to thrive. But the researchers strongly suspect the microbes are involved, just as Helicobacter pylori infections raise the risk of stomach cancer.

“If you knew for sure that a species of bacteria was causing prostate cancer, you could work out an antibiotic to remove it and that would prevent progression, one would hope,” Cooper said. But this is not as straightforward as it sounds, he cautioned. “There are many complications. Antibiotics don’t get into the prostate very well and you would need to choose an antibiotic that only kills certain bacteria,” he said.