Research 'breakthrough' could save cancer livesStem cell work could save bowel cancer patients

20 August 2008

A doctor speaking to a patient

Ask your GP if omega 3 is compatible with your medication

A breakthrough in stem cell research could improve the survival chances of patients suffering from an aggressive form of bowel cancer, scientists said today.

Researchers from Durham University and the North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) found that those likely to develop a more virulent strain of the disease could be pinpointed through a test which looks for a marker protein that's called Lamin A.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK and in its early stages patients are normally treated with surgery.

Extra chemotherapy

But the scientists, who made the discovery after tracking tissue samples from 700 patients, argue that those with Lamin A in their tissue should be given additional chemotherapy treatment to improve their chances of recovery.

They found that around a third of the patients tested had the protein in their tissue samples and that this indicated a more serious form of the disease.

The researchers, who worked with colleagues from The James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough, and the Departments of Pathology and Epidemiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, now hope to develop a test for general use.

Test

Study co-author Professor Chris Hutchison, of Durham University and NESCI, said: 'Currently the hospitals use a standard test to work out how far the cancer has progressed and then they use this to determine the treatment the patient should receive.

'However, we are potentially able to more accurately predict who would benefit from chemotherapy.'

More than 36,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year and its development is linked with diet, lifestyle and environmental factors.

Almost three quarters of cases occur in people aged 65 and over. Because many patients are elderly and frail, chemotherapy is rarely used in their treatment as it could cause more harm than benefit.

Save lives

Professor Robert Wilson, a consultant surgeon and bowel cancer specialist at The James Cook University Hospital, said: 'We know the best treatment for very early and very late disease but there are still a lot of unknowns in-between these two extremes.

'Chemotherapy can be very useful but can have a number of side effects, so we only want to use it where we think there's a good chance it will help. This test will help us determine that.'

The study, funded by the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR) and NHS Research and Development funds, is published in the scientific journal Public Library of Science One (PLOS One).

Mark Matfield, Scientific Adviser with the AICR, said: 'There is a desperate need for more effective treatments for bowel cancer.

'The problem is identifying which cancers need which treatments. This discovery may show us the way to do that and help save a lot of lives.'