Background: Androgens bind to the androgen receptor (AR) in prostate cells and are essential survival factors for healthy prostate epithelium. Most untreated prostate cancers retain some dependence upon the AR and respond, at least transiently, to androgen ablation therapy. However, the relationship between endogenous androgen levels and cancer etiology is unclear. High levels of androgens have traditionally been viewed as driving abnormal proliferation leading to cancer, but it has also been suggested that low levels of androgen could induce selective pressure for abnormal cells. We formulate a mathematical model of androgen regulated prostate growth to study the effects of abnormal androgen levels on selection for pre-malignant phenotypes in early prostate cancer development.
Results: We find that cell turnover rate increases with decreasing androgen levels, which may increase the rate of mutation and malignant evolution. We model the evolution of a heterogeneous prostate cell population using a continuous state-transition model. Using this model we study selection for AR expression under different androgen levels and find that low androgen environments, caused either by low serum testosterone or by reduced 5alpha-reductase activity, select more strongly for elevated AR expression than do normal environments. High androgen actually slightly reduces selective pressure for AR upregulation. Moreover, our results suggest that an aberrant androgen environment may delay progression to a malignant phenotype, but result in a more dangerous cancer should one arise.
Conclusions: The model represents a useful initial framework for understanding the role of androgens in prostate cancer etiology, and it suggests that low androgen levels can increase selection for phenotypes resistant to hormonal therapy that may also be more aggressive. Moreover, clinical treatment with 5alpha-reductase inhibitors such as finasteride may increase the incidence of therapy resistant cancers.