Level of liver hormone could help diagnose bowel cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists in Birmingham have found that the level of a certain hormone in the blood of patients with bowel cancer could be used to determine how far their disease has advanced.

The hormone, hepcidin, is thought to play a central role in the body's regulation of iron levels. Previous studies have linked it with anaemia in people with infection or inflammation.

Anaemia is associated with bowel cancer, so researchers at the Cancer Research UK Institute for Cancer Studies at the University of Birmingham set out to discover whether the anaemia found in bowel cancer patients is due to increased levels of hepcidin.

Publishing their findings in the World Journal of Gastroenterology (WJG), they reveal that circulating levels of hepcidin were not linked with anaemia.

However, they found a strong link between the level of hepcidin in the bloodstream and the stage of bowel cancer.

They also discovered that bowel cancer cells appeared to be producing hepcidin themselves, as well as being produced by liver cells as expected.

The team propose that this is to prevent iron from leaving the cells, thereby leading to an accumulation of iron that is somehow beneficial for the tumour.

This could explain why early trials involving 'iron chelators' - drugs that remove iron from the body - have produced promising results in cancer treatment.

The study authors wrote: "This is the first study to show that systemic hepcidin levels were positively associated with stage of bowel cancer.

"Furthermore, this study suggests that colonic epithelial cancer cells have acquired the ability to express hepcidin, a protein which was previously thought to be largely expressed by the liver."

The researchers believe that the discovery could be used in the diagnosis of bowel cancer, as the level of hepcidin in a patient's blood could indicate how advanced their disease is, and may even provide a new target for anti-cancer therapies.