Queen's University Belfast in bowel cancer discovery

Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck said the discovery had primed the development of a potential new treatment for bowel cancer

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Researchers at Queen's University in Belfast have said they have made a "significant breakthrough" in the potential treatment of bowel cancer.

Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck and her team have discovered two genes cause bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatments used to fight the disease.

Currently over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year.

It kills over 16,000 patients yearly.

The activity of the two genes, called MEK and MET, was uncovered when researchers at Queen's looked at all the different pathways and interactions taking place in bowel cancer cells.

Dr van Schaeybroeck and her colleagues found that these bowel cancers switch on a "survival mechanism" when they are treated with drugs that target faulty MEK genes.

When researchers added drugs that also block the MET gene, the bowel cancer cells died.

The team are now testing a new approach to target these two genes in the most aggressive forms of bowel cancer in a European Commission-funded clinical trial that is being led by Dr van Schaeybroeck.

More than half of patients diagnosed develop an aggressive form of the disease that does not respond to standard therapy - the five-year overall survival in this patient group is less than 5%.

'Deadly disease'

Dr van Schaeybroeck, from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) at Queen's University, said: "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."

Cancer cells are typically large and divide rapidly in a chaotic, uncontrolled manner Cancer cells are typically large and divide rapidly in a chaotic, uncontrolled manner

Queen's University Vice-Chancellor, Prof Patrick Johnston, said: "Understanding the genes that cause bowel cancer is a key focus of our research. Our discoveries in this deadly disease have identified a new route to clinical application for cancer patients."

Prof David Waugh, director of the CCRCB at Queen's, said: "The publication of this research by Dr van Schaeybroeck and her team demonstrates our commitment to performing excellent science here in Belfast that can be directly translated to the clinic."

The clinical trial, called MErCuRIC, is due to start in September, and will deliver personalised medicine to Northern Ireland patients and patients from other European countries.

The trial will involve 13 research/clinical teams from nine European countries.

The research was funded by Cancer Research UK.

The findings are published in the international journal Cell Reports.

Bowel cancer symptoms include bleeding from the anus and/or blood in the faeces, a change in normal bowel habits lasting three weeks or more, extreme tiredness for no obvious reason, unexplained weight loss or a pain or lump in the stomach.

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