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Newly-identified protein could ‘soften’ bladder cancer tumours

A research team based at the University of Manchester, and funded by the Medical Research Council, have found and identified a protein which could help doctors decide which patients would benefit most from a pre-treatment to radiotherapy.

The study, which was published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that bladder cancer patients whose tumour contained higher levels of a protein called HIF-1a were more likely to benefit from having carbogen, a treatment which involved oxygen being mixed with carbon dioxide gas, and nicotinamide tablets in conjunction with their radiotherapy. The pre-treatment, called ‘CON’ makes radiotherapy more effective within cancer patients.

The research team compared levels of HIF-1a in tissue samples from over 130 patients who had either radiotherapy on its own, or in conjunction with CON. The researchers found the protein predicted which patients benefitted from having CON based on the comparisons they made. Patients with higher levels of the protein were linked to better survival rates when the patients also had radiotherapy and CON. Patients with lower HIF-1a levels didn’t benefit from the CON treatment before their radiotherapy.

The HIF-1a protein works by indicating low oxygen levels in tumour cells. The CON pre-treatment works by adding oxygen to the already oxygen-deprived cells (the same cells indicated by HIF-1a) which makes them more sensitive to the radiotherapy treatment.

Professor Catharine West, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Manchester said, “Although we have another biomarker that can predict responsiveness to CON and radiotherapy in bladder cancer, these findings tell us a bit more about the characteristics of bladder cancer tumours and how they may respond to this treatment. But we desperately need to do more work to find ways to treat those patients who won’t see as much benefit from this.”

Around 11,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with bladder cancer each year, with over 5,100 deaths.

Neil Barrie, senior science information and communications manager at Cancer Research UK said, “This fascinating new finding could help doctors adapt their treatments to patients with bladder cancer as well as shedding more light on the disease. Deaths from bladder cancer are falling in the UK, but more work needs to be done so that this trend continues. More research is needed to help us find new and better ways to fight bladder cancer.”

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