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A major breakthrough by leading Ulster University scientists into prostate cancer has revealed the reason why many men may suffer a relapse within two years of starting one of the most frequently used treatments for the disease.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in Northern Ireland. Around 1,000 men in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year and the five year survival rate is just under 90 per cent.

Ulster University's research findings, published in the British Journal of Cancer revealed that some men who receive a hormone treatment known as androgen deprivation therapy can suffer a relapse; not because the treatment is ineffective but because a low level of oxygen in the tumour can trigger genetic changes that accelerate the growth of new cancer cells.

Ulster University's team is now currently studying the benefits combined drug therapy can bring in targeting the low oxygen cells and prevent tumour growth following the hormone therapy.

Ulster University's Dr Declan McKenna said: "Low oxygen in prostate tumours is a well accepted finding but our research now confirms that various genes can react to those low oxygen levels and actively promote tumour development. "This is a hugely significant advance in the global battle against prostate cancer as it means we can focus efforts on effectively targeting this problem to enhance future treatment options for patients.

"At Ulster University we are now investigating how we can develop and tailor improved treatment for individual prostate cancer patients through combined drug therapy, with the ultimate aim of enhancing the effectiveness of the hormone therapy and reducing the incidence of relapse."

Ulster University's research was funded by the Department for Employment and Learning, and Prostate Cancer UK with support from the Movember Foundation.

Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Prostate Cancer UK said: "This type of hormone treatment is the current gold standard for men with advanced prostate cancer, and can keep the disease at bay for years. However we need to know much more about what is happening when hormone treatment stops working and what we can do to get the best out of the treatment choices that come later.

"This study nicely brings out the importance of the changes that occur in prostate cancer cells as they respond to this therapy. By understanding what these changes mean we can help clinicians decide which other treatments will be the most effective to offer men once it stops working.  Finding ways to beat prostate cancer by improving the impact of current treatments is one of the key focuses of Prostate Cancer UK's new strategy."