An experimental drug designed to lower cholesterol may turn out to be an effective weapon against prostate cancer, research has shown.
Tumour cells need cholesterol to construct their cell membranes. By cutting their cholesterol production, the new molecule, known as RO 48-8071, causes the cells to fall apart and die.
It could also have the added benefit of preventing prostate cancer developing resistance to hormone therapies.
Professor Salman Hyder, from the University of Missouri in the US, said: "Cholesterol is a molecule found in animal cells that serves as a structural component of cell membranes. When tumour cells grow, they synthesise more cholesterol.
"Often, cancer patients are treated with toxic chemotherapies; however, in our study, we focused on reducing the production of cholesterol in cancer cells, which could kill cancer cells and reduce the need for toxic chemotherapy."
The compound was originally developed by the drug company Roche for the treatment of high cholesterol.
Prof. Hyder's team found that human prostate cancer cells exposed to the drug in the laboratory died.
When the drug was injected into mice with human prostate cancer, tumour growth was curbed.
Importantly, the drug appeared to be effective against prostate cancer cells that had become resistant to hormone treatments.
Prostate cancer is initially tackled by preventing its growth being fuelled by the male hormone testosterone. But over time, the cancer stops responding to this treatment.
One way tumours ensure their survival is by manufacturing their own testosterone through a process that relies on cholesterol.
"Cholesterol ... can contribute to the development of anti-hormone resistance because cholesterol is converted into hormones in tumour cells," said Prof Hyder. "Therefore, these cholesterol-forming pathways are attractive therapeutic targets for the treatment of prostate cancer."
The study is due to appear in the journal OncoTargets and Therapy.