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How the oscillating prostate size of the brushtail possum can help us understand prostate cancer

Melanie Laird. Image: Victoria Sugrue

Dr Melanie Laird of Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou the University of Otago will determine the genetic mechanisms controlling prostate enlargement and regression in animals that breed seasonally


Published on 3 Whiringa-ā-rangi November 2022

The prostate in mammals which breed seasonally undergoes a dramatic enlargement and then regression during the mating season. Rapid shifts between cell growth and death are otherwise rare in adult tissues, to prevent uncontrolled growth and cancer. The fact that the cellular changes which allow the prostates of seasonal breeders to oscillate in size is both controlled and reversible means that these species offer a unique opportunity to study the mechanisms of controlled prostate growth. 

Dr Melanie Laird has been awarded a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant to undertake an ambitious study of this phenomenon, identifying the specific genetic patterns that switch on and off mammalian prostate changes.  This study will compare the gene expression in two seasonal breeders (brushtail possums and red deer), to two animals that breed year-round (opossums and black rats). The genes they discover will then be studied, determining their specific functionality. 

This will be the first study to identify the functional roles of prostate genes involved in seasonality. it will shed light on the fundamental processes controlling cell growth and death, as well as how diverse mammalian species overcome the challenges of seasonal reproduction. Findings from this research have the potential to lead to future therapies for prostate cancers in humans.