Family History and Prostate Cancer: New Technology Speeds Up the Hunt for Genes

They are a bad threesome, the risk factors for prostate cancer: Age, race, and family history. It is in large part due to William Isaacs, Ph.D., the Dr. and Mrs. Peter S. Bing Scholar, that we know as much as we do about this third risk. Two decades ago, when Isaacs, who is also the William Thomas Gerrard, Mario Anthony Duhon and Jennifer and John Chalsty Professor of Urology, began looking for proof that prostate cancer runs in families, most doctors thought prostate cancer was just an incredibly common disease in older men. Over years of groundbreaking work, he and colleagues have found certain genes and genetic variations — which can be inherited from either the mother or father — that can make a man more susceptible to developing prostate cancer. When they first started, their work was so laborintensive and painstaking that Isaacs may have wondered why he’d gotten himself into such an ambitious undertaking.

Things are much different now. “The technology to sequence the human genome has gotten dramatically better and less expensive, even over the past year,” says Isaacs. This new technology is called “next gen sequencing,” and with it, Isaacs believes, his lab can make rapid progress in identifying and characterizing the inherited genes that could make a man, and his sons and grandsons, prone to developing prostate cancer. “We are in the process of sequencing the complete coding portion of the DNA in patients with a strong family history of developing aggressive prostate cancer at a young age,” he says. “These are the men who need to know as soon as possible that they are at risk, and who will benefit most from early disease screening, diagnosis and treatment.”

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