UK team gains insight into aggressive bowel cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

A team of British and Dutch scientists have made a discovery that could lead to a more accurate way of identifying patients with an aggressive form of bowel cancer.

Researchers at Durham University and the North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) have found that patients with an aggressive form of bowel cancer commonly have large amounts of a stem cell marker protein called Lamin A in their cancer tissue.

The team speculate that measuring Lamin A levels could therefore form the basis of a diagnostic test to identify cases of aggressive bowel cancer.

They analysed tissue samples from 700 bowel cancer patients and found that around one third of patients expressed the protein, and that these patients were more likely to have an aggressive form of the disease.

Different cancers respond differently to treatments, so understanding which 'type' of cancer a patient has can help improve decisions about what treatments to give them.

For instance, while patients with early stage bowel cancer usually undergo surgery to remove the cancer, they often do not receive chemotherapy as the side-effects of the drugs may outweigh the benefits.

However, some patients have a particularly aggressive form of the disease, and these patients' survival is generally improved by giving them chemotherapy.

Mark Matfield, scientific adviser with the Association for International Cancer Research, explained: "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."

Publishing their findings in the Public Library of Science One journal (PLoS One), they suggest that patients who test positive for the protein should be given chemotherapy to improve their prognosis.

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."

Professor Robert Wilson, a consultant surgeon and bowel cancer specialist at the James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough, who was also involved in the research, 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."