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Breakthrough bowel cancer discovery could lead to new treatment

A research team at Queen’s University Belfast have revealed that they have made a ‘significant breakthrough’ in the potential future treatment of bowel cancer.

The team, headed by Dr Sandra van Shaeybroeck have discovered that two genes that cause bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatments used to fight the disease.

The two genes, MEK and MET, were discovered when the researchers were looking at all the different biological pathways and cell interactions taking place in bowel cancer cells. They found that the bowel cancer switches on a ‘survival mechanism’ when they are treated with drugs that target the faulty MEK gene. When researchers added treatment which also blocked the MET gene, the cancer cells died.

Dr van Shaeybroeck, from the Centre of Cancer Research and Cell Biology 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.”

Managing to understand the genes that cause bowel cancer is a key focus of research for many scientific teams fighting cancer across the country. Instead of just fighting back, gene research could allow scientists and researchers to discover a way to prevent the disease developing in the first place. The discoveries made at Queen’s this month are ground-breaking, and allow for a new type of research to follow which will allow new treatments to be developed.

Gene therapy is still a really experimental type of biological therapy, but one which is being increasingly implemented across the country. Sometimes our genes become damaged through external environmental factors, such as smoking, which damage the genes responsible for things such as the ones which stop dangerous cells multiplying or the ones with the ability to fix mutated cells. Some people have inherited faulty genes which make them more likely to develop varying forms of cancer – these inherited genes cause between 2 and 3 out of every 100 cancers.

Getting non-faulty genes into cancer cells is one of the most challenging aspects of gene therapy – processes are being improved constantly in cancer research labs. The gene is taken into the cancer cell by a carrier called a vector, so something similar to a virus. Viruses can enter cells and deliver genetic material without causing too much damage, and can also be ‘cured’ or thrown out of the body within 72 hours.

Current treatments for bowel cancer include surgery, often which results in a colostomy bag, chemotherapy and radiotherapy – however, none of these treatments eliminate the base cause of the disease – the faulty gene- and instead just use drugs and surgery to get rid of what is there at the moment. Gene therapy using research similar to that which the team at Queen’s University have worked on holds a glimmer of hope for cancer patients worldwide.

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