Defining future cancer treatments

Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Australian men, with around 18,000 cases detected every year.

On the positive side, it’s highly curable. But treatment frequently brings traumatic side effects, and in many cases is undertaken unnecessarily. At the University of Adelaide, cancer researchers are approaching this problem from a new angle in the hope of informing better treatment choices at the time of diagnosis.

"Currently we treat 50 men in order to save one because unfortunately, we can’t yet pinpoint the one man who really needs treatment."Professor Butler

The decision to go ahead with prostate cancer treatment is challenging for men and their families, not least because of the side effects, which can include impotence, infertility and incontinence. For many patients, a lack of information about their specific condition—and just how aggressive it is—makes it unclear whether or not treatment is necessary.  

With the aim of addressing this gap, a research group based at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) is now exploring the role of lipids—fatty acids and their derivatives—within tumours.

“We’re working on something totally new and unexplored,” says Professor Lisa Butler, Group Leader and Principal Research Fellow at the University. “Not only is it going to give us new insights into how prostate cancer behaves, but the tests we’re looking to build will hopefully give clarity to men facing really tough decisions.”

Lisa Butler

Professor Butler hopes to develop much-needed tests to accurately distinguish between tumours requiring treatment and tumours that simply need monitoring. “Currently we treat 50 men in order to save one because unfortunately, we can’t yet pinpoint the one man who really needs treatment.”

Valuable research is underway worldwide to tackle this significant issue, much of it looking at the genetic basis of prostate cancer using sequence-based tests. This project, Professor Butler says, is different and holds a tremendous amount of promise. The novel approach, looking at the building blocks of human cells, will provide a new source of information about cancers and the way they behave.

The team is currently exploring a number of different techniques for locating, visualising and measuring lipids within tumours. “Lipids show a lot of potential as new biomarkers for aggressive tumours. If we can identify a specific signature of lipids in the tumour tissue, we’ll have a better idea about which require treatment, and which are unlikely to spread. It’s a really exciting time for prostate cancer research.”

Learn more about Professor Butler