ADVANCES IN BOWEL CANCER RESEARCH AT BDI
Two important advances in the field of bowel cancer research have been pioneered by BDI researcher and former Irish Cancer Society Research Fellow, Dr Gregor Kijanka. The first advance is the discovery of biological markers (biomarkers) that are linked with poor survival in bowel cancer patients. A deeper investigation of these biomarkers has helped to uncover a new pathway used by bowel cancer cells to stay alive in the body. The second is the advancement of a potential blood test to diagnose bowel cancer at the earliest possible stage, based on antibodies produced by the body against the cancer.
The first advance is a major step forward in our understanding of bowel cancer and of survival from this disease. In a study involving tissue samples from over 100 patients, Dr Kijanka’s biomarker was seen at higher levels in half of the patients, all of whom had poor survival. Dr Kijanka discovered through his laboratory research and by collaborating with Professor Lance Liotta in the USA and Professor Elaine Kay in Beaumont Hospital, that when this biomarker is present at very high levels, it switches the cells into a ‘self-preservation mode’ and this is linked to poor survival in patients. The study appears in “The Journal of Pathology: Clinical Research” and can be viewed here. What makes this advance particularly exciting is that this biomarker could be used by a physician to predict responses to drug treatment with the potential to enable personalised treatment for each patient.
The second advance is based on Dr Kijanka’s previous biomarker discovery research that was used to develop a potential blood test to identify the presence of bowel cancer at the earliest possible opportunity, ultimately leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment. The discovery was granted patent status in the US in 2013. The success of this research has also resulted in the development of the ONC3 programme in BDI with Professor Elaine Kay as clinical lead and Professor Richard O’Kennedy as academic lead. In addition, Dr Julie-Ann O’Reilly and Sean Fitzgerald have played important roles in contributing to the research. The focus was recently widened to include individuals attending the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme at the James Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, in collaboration with Prof Richard Farrell. It has also received interest from the clinical diagnostics industry. If successful a potential blood test could be made available to complement BowelScreen, the existing National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in the future. The management and ongoing commercialization of the ONC 3 programme has also greatly benefited from the inputs of Dr Barry Byrne, Dr Conor Burke and Kieran Flynn of the BDI.
Cancer of the bowel happens when cells in the bowel change and grow much faster than usual. While bowel cancer is a very serious illness, early diagnosis leads to improved survival. If bowel cancer is found early, the growth is typically small and can be removed leaving the person healthy, and needing less treatment. Bowel cancer can occur in men and women and in 2011, 2,429 people were newly diagnosed. It is also the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland.
According to Dr Gregor Kijanka, “Typically patients who experience the symptoms of bowel cancer may visit their doctor when they have a number of complaints. This research is aimed at using these biomarkers identified in patients with bowel cancer to develop a quick, non-invasive blood test that would detect bowel cancer earlier so they are treated faster. Our other research discovery will help physicians to decide on a more personalised course of medicine which will ultimately improve patient outcomes.”
Dr Sinéad Walsh, Acting Head of Research at the Irish Cancer Society, which is the largest voluntary funder of cancer research in Ireland said, “We are very excited by the results of this research as it will help us move another step forward in our strategy towards a future without cancer. The earlier bowel cancer can be detected the better the outcome for patients. The availability of a simple blood test for bowel cancer has the potential to build on and improve early detection methods such as the current National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, Bowelscreen, which is already working to reduce mortality rates from this disease. This, coupled with the ability to personalise treatments for bowel cancer patients, will contribute to better outcomes for people with bowel cancer which is currently the second biggest cause of cancer death in Ireland.”