Scientists from Cancer Research UK have identified — for the first time — that there are five different types of prostate cancer, and they're able to discriminate between them.

These findings come from a landmark study published in EBioMedicine and could have important implications for the way scientists study and treat prostate cancer. Among other things, the findings can help researchers identify which tumors are aggressive and able to spread quickly throughout the body.

“Our exciting results show that prostate cancer can be classified into five genetically different types,” said study author Dr. Alastair Lamb, of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute in a press release. “These findings could help doctors decide on the best course of treatment for each individual patient, based on the characteristics of their tumor.”

Utilizing cancerous prostate tissue from over 250 men, the scientists measured activity in 100 different genes linked to the disease and were able to group the tumors into five categories, each one with a unique hallmark. This analysis was better at predicting which tumors were most likely to be aggressive than the tests doctors currently use, but the findings must be confirmed with a larger sample size.

“The next step is to confirm these results in bigger studies and drill down into the molecular ‘nuts and bolts’ of each specific prostate cancer type,” Lamb said. “By carrying out more research into how different diseases behave we might be able to develop more effective ways to treat prostate cancer patients in the future, saving more lives.

Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer in men in the UK. About 41,700 cases are diagnosed ever year, and there are around 10,800 deaths from the disease each year.

“The challenge in treating prostate cancer is that it can either behave like a pussycat — growing slowly and unlikely to cause problems in a man’s lifetime — or a tiger — spreading aggressively and requiring urgent treatment,” said Profesor Malcolm Mason, an expert from Cancer Research UK. “At the moment we have no way to distinguish them. This means that some men may get treatment they don’t need, causing unnecessary side effects, while others might benefit from more intensive treatment.”

The impact of the research depends on how results hold up in future studies, according to Mason.

“This research could be game-changing if the results hold up in larger clinical trials and could give us better information to guide each man’s treatment — even helping us to choose between treatments for men with aggressive cancers,” he said. “Ultimately this could mean more effective treatment for the men who need it, helping to save more lives and improve the quality of life for many thousands of men with prostate cancer.”

Source: Lamb A, et al. Integration of copy number and transcriptomics provides risk stratification in prostate cancer: a discovery and validation cohort study. EBioMedicine. 2015.