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BOWEL CANCER 'BREAKTHROUGH' MADE BY QUEEN'S 

31 May 2017

Research led by scientists at Queen's is being described as a "breakthrough" in the fight against bowel cancer, the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK and the second leading cause of cancer death.

Queen’s researchers discovered that a genomic approach to understanding bowel (colorectal) cancer could improve the prognosis and quality of life for patients.

For clinicians, treating patients with bowel cancer can be particularly challenging. Professor Mark Lawler, Chair in Translational Genomics in the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) at Queen’s and joint Senior Author on the study explains: “Currently patients with colorectal cancer are offered chemotherapy treatment.

“While this treatment may be successful for some patients, for others it will have no effect on fighting the cancer, though the patients may suffer debilitating side effects such as nerve damage that can result in a loss of sensation or movement in a part of the body. A ‘one size fits all’ approach isn’t a viable option if we are to effectively tackle this disease.”

The study, carried out in collaboration with researchers in the University of Oxford and the University of Leeds, has been published in the high impact journal Nature Communications. It shows how defining precise gene signatures within bowel cancer cells can enable the development of novel prognostic and predictive markers for bowel cancer and help to drive personalised medicine approaches.

Dr Philip Dunne, Senior Research Fellow at Queen’s said: “Through analysing the molecular and genetic data generated from patient tissue samples, we have discovered that there are different subtypes of bowel cancer. This research unequivocally identifies robust gene signatures that can be used to inform patient management.

“It will allow us to identify particular gene signatures that indicate sensitivity or resistance to specific therapies. Thus, we can tailor treatment to the individual patient, maximising its effectiveness while minimising potential side effects.”

The research has been funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK. Dr Catherine Pickworth, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “Personalised medicine aims to give the best treatment to each patient, sparing people unnecessary therapy if it won't help.

“This study is a step forward in achieving this, giving us genetic signatures to look out for in bowel cancer patients. The next steps will be to find out which treatment works best for each genetic signatures so that cancer treatments can be tailored to each patient, so they have the best chance of beating cancer.”

Over 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. A number of treatment options are available but mortality rates remain high, with bowel cancer the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK. 

This research was performed as part of Stratified Medicine in Colorectal Cancer (S:CORT), an MRC-Cancer Research UK funded stratified medicine consortium, bringing together the best of UK science and clinical care in bowel cancer to develop personalised medicine treatment approaches in this common malignancy.

S:CORT involves key partnerships with patients and patient advocacy groups. Ed Goodall, a survivor of bowel cancer and a member of S:CORT explains: “In the past, a tumour was a tumour. Patients are offered chemotherapy and this may not be effective or necessary depending on the patient yet they will still endure all the horrors this treatment can cause including nausea and hair loss.

“If the oncologist knows more about the subtype of bowel cancer, they will know whether the treatment will be necessary or effective. From a patient point of view, discovering the subtypes of this cancer is really ground breaking work because it will have massive implications for patient care and treatment.”

Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, the UK’s leading bowel cancer research charity and a partner in S:CORT said: “This important study highlights how increasing our understanding of what makes normal cells go wrong is key to developing new approaches that can improve outcomes for patients. 

“With nearly 16,000 people dying from bowel cancer each year, it is essential that we increase our understanding of what drives the disease and then improve and extend the range of treatment options available. The results of this study take us a step closer to achieving this.”

If you would like to support medical research at Queen’s please contact the University’s Medical Fundraising team on +44 (0)28 9097 3159 or email Helen Surgenor.

For further information contact Suzanne Lagan, Communications Officer at Queen’s on +44 (0)28 9097 5292.

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