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Our impact on bowel cancer

Bowel cancer progressWe're fighting over 200 cancers, and bowel cancer is in our sights. Every single pound donated helps fund our groundbreaking research, bringing closer the day when all cancers will be cured. 

Over the past forty years we’ve seen dramatic progress in tackling bowel cancer. Someone diagnosed with bowel cancer today is twice as likely to survive for at least ten years compared to the 1970s. Our work has played a big part in this success, and many thousands of people have benefited from our research.

Thanks to our supporters, we continue to be at the forefront of research, working towards a day when bowel cancer is cured. We are a major funder of bowel cancer research in the UK, covering all aspects from fundamental lab research to improving screening and treatment for the disease.

Our researchers are heroes. Find out how your donation could support their pioneering, life-saving work.

Here are just some of the ways our work is making a difference to people with bowel cancer:

Bowel cancer research at St Mark's Hospital

Cancer Research UK’s predecessors, the British Empire Cancer Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, have a long history of supporting world-class bowel cancer research at St Mark’s Hospital in London – the UK’s only specialist hospital for bowel disease.

Our association with St Mark’s goes back to the 1920s, and in 1927 we provided labs for the pioneering bowel cancer researcher Dr Cuthbert Dukes. Later on, the ICRF Colorectal Unit was established there in 1985.

Today we fund the Family Cancer Group at the hospital - part of our Imperial College Cancer Research UK Centre. The researchers are investigating the causes and prevention of bowel cancer and testing more effective screening techniques, to help doctors diagnose bowel cancer earlier and save lives.

Pioneering diagnosis

As far back as the 1920s, our researchers at St Mark’s Hospital were developing groundbreaking techniques for diagnosing bowel cancer.

We supported the research of pathologist Dr Cuthbert Dukes and senior surgeon Mr J.P Lockhart-Mummery. They devised the world-famous ‘Dukes staging’ to classify bowel cancer. This approach is still used today in planning the treatment and care of people with cancer.1

The team at St Mark’s also pioneered a technique for taking samples of bowel tumours using a sigmoidoscope (a special tube used to look inside the bowel). This paved the way for more effective, faster diagnosis and treatment of patients with the disease – including modern screening techniques.2

Hunting for risky genes

Our scientists have led the world in discovering some of the genetic faults that increase the risk of bowel cancer - our scientists at St Mark’s Hospital first published family trees of people affected by hereditary bowel cancer back in 1925.3   This knowledge is already bringing benefits to thousands of families with a history of the disease. 

Over the years, we've funded some of the world's leading researchers in the area of bowel cancer genetics. Perhaps the most significant achievement by our scientists in this area was locating a gene called APC, found by Sir Walter Bodmer and his team in the 1980s. Inherited faults in APC cause a condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, or FAP, which greatly increases the risk of bowel cancer.4

Since then, our researchers, along with teams around the world, have gone on to reveal the intricate complexities of the role of APC in bowel cancer - not only in families affected by the disease, but in the wider population too.

Our researchers also unravelled the complex gene faults involved in the inherited syndrome HNPCC, which greatly increases the risk of bowel cancer.5 People with this syndrome are now offered screening from a young age, to pick up any cancers that develop at an early stage.

And we’ve made significant progress in revealing subtle genetic variations that can raise or lower bowel cancer risk.6,7 These gene changes may only have a small individual impact, but in combination with a person’s lifestyle choices, they all add up.

Revealing lifestyle factors

Although our genes play an important role in bowel cancer risk, lifestyle also plays a big part. We are helping to fund the largest ever study of diet and cancer - to unpick the complex influences of what we eat, drink and do.

Results from this important study, called EPIC, showed that a diet high in red and processed meat and drinking too much alcohol increases the risk of bowel cancer. And a high-fibre diet and lots of physical activity can reduce the risk.

Improving screening

Spotting bowel cancer early is the key to saving more lives from this disease. A national bowel cancer screening programme is now being rolled out across the UK, and our scientists predict it could save as many as 2,500 lives every year by 2025

Despite the clear benefits of screening, the programme was at risk of being put on hold. But our strong campaigning and recommendations helped to make this life-saving screening programme a reality. Early results suggest that this screening programme is already working

We also helped to fund a groundbreaking trial of an alternative bowel screening procedure that uses a tiny camera called a Flexi-Scope. The study showed that a single test between the ages of 55 and 64 could prevent a third of bowel cancers and cut death rates by more than 40 per cent.8

If adopted nationally and incorporated into the existing screening programme – as announced by the government in October 2010 – the test could save thousands more lives. This breakthrough in bowel cancer screening was only possible thanks to the 170,000 men and women who took part in this 16-year study.

Better treatments

Our research has helped transform the way that bowel cancer is treated today. In turn, this has saved thousands of lives.

For example, we funded QUASAR, one of the largest ever clinical trials testing the benefits of chemotherapy for bowel cancer. The trial showed for the first time that chemotherapy could help to improve survival for people whose cancer was less advanced, and changed the way that patients are treated.9

And we helped to fund COIN - the largest clinical trial to date for people with advanced bowel cancer. The results from the study are helping to shape the way that bowel cancer is treated in the UK.10

Our scientists have also been involved in testing many drugs that are commonly used to treat patients with bowel cancer, including oxaliplatin, irinotecan, capecitabine and fluorouracil.

Working together with the drug company AstraZeneca, Cancer Research UK scientists developed the bowel cancer drug raltitrexed (Tomudex), licensed for use worldwide in 1996. At the time, it was the first new drug for bowel cancer for 35 years.

Today, we continue to press forward with developing better treatments, including researching new techniques to help bowel cancer patients get back on their feet faster after surgery.

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  1. Dukes, C. Br J Cancer, 1950;4(1):59-62 PubMed link
  2. British Empire Cancer Campaign Yearbook (1931) p61
  3. Lockhart-Mummery A (1925) Cancer and Heredity. Lancet 1 427-429
  4. Bodmer, W. et al. (1987) Nature 328: 614-6 PubMed link
  5. Froggatt, NJ et al. (1995) J Med Genet. 32:352-7.PubMed link
  6. Zanke, BW et al. (2007) Nature Genetics 39:989-94 PubMed link
  7. Tomlinson, I et al. (2007) Nature Genetics 39:984-8 PubMed link
  8. Atkin W et al (2010) Lancet 375:1624-33 PubMed link
  9. QUASAR Collaborative Group (2007) Lancet 370:2020-9 PubMed link
  10. Adams et al. Expert Rev Anticancer Ther (2008) 8:1237-45 PubMed link
Updated: 27 September 2010