A new study revels that African-American men have more than 20 times the level of a protein (TIMP-1) that enables the spread of prostate cancer tumors than Caucasian men.

At the recent American Society for Cell Biology meeting in San Francisco, a group of Louisiana researchers presented their findings based on an analysis of nearly 100 tissue samples from prostate cancer sufferers.

While the researchers stressed that black men are often diagnosed with prostate cancer too late and receive inadequate medical treatment, they also believe that TIMP-1 is the main biological factor causing twice as many African-American men to develop prostate cancer and die from the disease than any other racial group.

“This is one of the first functional biological markers we’ve seen,” says Briana J. Williams, PhD, of Louisiana State University in Shreveport, the study’s lead author. “It’s going to be very helpful in developing new treatments.”

Typically, TIMP-1 protects men from prostate cancer by inhibiting harmful enzymes, but in high concentrations it has the opposite effect. In increased amounts, the TIMP-1 protein causes prostate cancer to spread throughout the body, increasing the chance of death.

“We were disappointed when [TIMP-1] was one of the genes that came up, because it’s been considered an inhibitor of prostate cancer,” Williams says. “Now, the key will be figuring out how we can separate the good part of TIMP-1 from the bad part.”

Researchers hope to develop a blood test that will identify patients who over-produce TIMP-1. “It’s not going to be easy or simple, but our priority is to try to use the protein to our advantage,” Williams says.

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