Scientists target genes in bid to tackle drug-resistant cancer

A breakthrough in treatment could benefits thousands of Irish patients with one of the most lethal forms of cancer.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have discovered how the activity of two genes causes bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatments used against the disease.

An international clinical trial will now be led by Queen’s researcher Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck, using new approaches to target these genes in its most aggressive forms. Also known as colon, rectal or colorectal cancer, around 2,400 new cases are identified in this country each year, and over 1,000 deaths are recorded annually.

According to the Queen’s researchers, more than half of patients develop the aggressive form of bowel cancer, for which there is a five-year survival rate of less than 5%.

“We have discovered how two key genes contribute to aggressive bowel cancer. Understanding how they are involved in development of the disease has also primed the development of a potential new treatment approach for this disease,” said Dr van Schaeybroeck.

Among the nine research and clinical teams to trial new drug treatments for people with advanced bowel cancer will be Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, which she expects will begin recruiting patients in September.

Dr van Schaeybroeck said around a handful would be involved in the initial phase, followed by up to 80 in the next phase of the four-year clinical trial.

Bowel cancer is responsible for the second-highest rate of cancer deaths in Ireland, although survival rates have improved over the past decade. A national bowel screening programme which began in late 2012 is targeting men and women in their 60s, and just under half of the 175,000 invited so far to take part by using a simple home test kit have done so. Although tests will not specifically identify bowel cancer, it can detect issues that may prompt further investigation, and around 95% of people receive normal results. The first phase continues until late 2015, and free screening will be extended over time to more than one million people aged 55 to 74, the age group in which over half of cases are diagnosed each year. The disease is more prevalent in men, for whom the death rate from bowel cancer is almost twice that of women.

Some of the main symptoms are bleeding from the back passage, and changes in normal bowel habits such as diarrhoea or constipation, which persist for a number of weeks. The BowelScreen programme recommends more physical activity, a diet with plenty of dietary fibre (fruit, vegetables, wholegrain bread, brown rice and cereals), reduced intake of processed and red meat, keeping a healthy weight, and limiting alcohol consumption, to help reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

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