Scientists are delving into the mysterious 'dark matter' in our genes in quest of a new treatment for the most deadly form of prostate cancer.
A research team led by The Open University is targeting neuroendocrine prostate cancer (NEPC), a form of the disease which spreads rapidly and is resistant to all available therapies.
Studying unique tissue samples derived from patients, they are looking to identify the genetic mechanism that drives NEPC, and develop a therapy to shut it down.
"It is possible that lncRNAs are important in many types of cancer, so we will be looking to expand the research to other tumour types."The research, funded with a grant of £236,000 from Cancer Research UK, is focused on genetic material known as 'long non-coding RNAs' (lncRNAs), nicknamed 'dark matter' because their function is unknown.
They are part of the genome once dismissed as non-functioning 'junk DNA', but recent evidence suggests lncRNAs may be important in some cancers.
The researchers will use genetic sequencing techniques on the tissue samples to produce the first-ever list of all the lncRNAs associated with NEPC.
Then they will select the lncRNAs which seem to be playing the most significant role in the cancer, and create a sequence of genetic code that shuts them down.
Their goal at the end of three years to have a therapy which can be delivered in the form of a drug, ready for clinical testing.
The research is initially targeting NEPC, which makes up ten percent of prostate cancers, but it could ultimately have a wider application, says Dr Francesco Crea, the Open University molecular oncologist who is leading the research.
"We are looking for new therapeutic targets in parts of the genome which has been previously overlooked," he said.
"It is possible that lncRNAs are important in many types of cancer, so we will be looking to expand the research to other tumour types."
Gene therapy, known as 'antisense' therapy, is an expanding and very promising area of cancer research, he added.
Dr Crea and colleague Professor Nacho Romero, based in The Open University's School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences, will be carrying out the research in collaboration with the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada and the Institute of Pathology in Basel, Switzerland.