Boys who go through puberty early could have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer in later life, a new study has suggested.
Genes associated with early puberty were linked to a raised risk of developing the disease.
Researchers hope to use this information to develop dietary interventions that could help protect teenage boys against prostate cancer in later life.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK, with over 47,000 new cases each year, and the second most common cancer in men worldwide.
In the study, which was published in the journal BMC Medicine, researchers analysed genetic data from 2,927 men – 1,136 of whom had prostate cancer and 1,791 who didn’t.
They identified genes that could indicate sexual maturation and each man was given a score dependent on how many of these maturity genes were present.
Researchers found that early sexual maturation was associated with increased prostate cancer risk.
It is thought this could be due to the effect of early and prolonged increased levels of growth hormones, which are altered with puberty. However further research is needed to examine this.
Scientists concluded that boys who mature at a later age have a reduced risk of developing prostate cancer – particularly aggressive types of the disease -in later life.
Professor David Neal, study principal investigator at the University of Cambridge, said: “This is the first time genetic markers have been used to measure sexual maturation.
“The research is particularly interesting because it has demonstrated a new way to look at risk factors, which allows more potential cause and effect relationships to be established.
“With prostate cancer being the most common cancer in men in the UK, prevention is key if we are to see a decrease in the number of men developing the disease.”
Professor Richard Martin, study researcher at the University of Bristol, said: “There are still many unanswered questions around what could prevent prostate cancer.
“However, these results linking sexual maturation and prostate cancer risk could help fill some of the gaps in our knowledge.
“What might be linking earlier age of puberty with the increased risk of prostate cancer are the effects of growth factor hormones and male sex hormones, which should be examined more closely in future research.”
Dr Panagiota Mitrou, from the World Cancer Research Fund which financially backed the study, heralded the results as “very exciting”.
She said they show evidence of “life course influences on prostate cancer risk”.
“We now need to better understand the findings,” she added. “If growth factor hormones are shown to be the driving force behind age of puberty and prostate cancer risk and progression, they could help us develop dietary interventions to promote healthy growth and hence protect against prostate cancer in adulthood.”
She added that men can also reduce their prostate cancer risk by making healthier lifestyle choices and maintaining a healthy weight.