Prostate cancer could soon be treated more effectively thanks to research in York into the disease.
Professor Norman Maitland at the University of York has discovered that a prostate-specific gene is controlled by retinoic acid, a derivative of vitamin A.
The research, which was supported by £2.15 million from Yorkshire Cancer Research a year ago, will make it possible to test whether retinoic acid, given therapeutically, can force prostate cancer stem cells to develop into more specialised cells.
This process, known as differentiation, could kill the stem cells or make them more susceptible to chemotherapy.
This type of therapy has been successful in boosting survival rates among acute promyelomcytic leukaemia patients from 0% to 80%.
Professor Maitland said: "It has been known for many years that low vitamin A in samples of blood is associated with prostate cancer, but nobody knew the mechanisms involved. We have revealed a functional biological link between retinoic receptor expression and our laboratory models of prostate cancers.
"Specifically, the gene we have investigated, the prostate transglutaminase (TGP), is one of the most prostate-specific genes known from the 28,000 in the human genome. We have shown that the TGP gene is controlled by the retinoic acid signalling pathway.
"When retinoic acid gets into a prostate cancer cell, it binds to one of three receptors in the nucleus of the cell. This binding then triggers a sequence of molecular events inside the nucleus which results in the TGP gene being turned on or off.
"We have shown that the same situation also applies to a number of other genes. All of these genes then tell the cell how to behave, to divide for example."
The findings have been published in the scientific journal Nucleic Acids Research.