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A new way to prevent bowel cancer?

Worldwide Cancer Research scientists have found a potentially new way to help prevent bowel cancer, and their first aim is to help those with an inherited form of the disease.

What's the new research all about?

The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications earlier this year, suggest that blocking a molecule called BCL-2 in bowel cells before they become fully cancerous might derail these cells from their destructive path.

Worldwide Cancer Research grantholder Dr Louis Vermeulen and his team in the Netherlands helped lead the research, together with Dr Douglas Winton at the University of Cambridge.


Working with mouse cells, Dr Vermeulen studied a type of cell which is involved in the very earliest stages of bowel cancer. These cells had already sustained cataclysmic, potentially cancer-causing genetic damage, but had not yet become full-blown cancer cells. He found that when he used a selective drug to inhibit BCL‑2, the cells diverted away from cancer, and towards harmless self-destruction.

“With this new research we show for the first time that inhibiting BCL-2 prevents formation of bowel cancer in the lab,” says Dr Vermeulen. “We also show that it is the activation of BCL-2 in mouse bowel stem cells that makes these cells susceptible to becoming cancerous, and not other, more mysterious properties attributed to stem cells- such as their longevity, or their ability to potentially divide forever.”

Dr Vermeulen now wants to test his findings in human cells. “The next stage is to validate our findings in human cells. We then want to see if we can develop a way of using BCL-2 inhibitors to help individuals who are at a higher risk of developing bowel cancer because of their genetic predisposition.”

New hope for patients with inherited bowel cancer

BCL-2 inhibitors and similar compounds are already in clinical trials as a potential targeted therapy for other types of cancer, such as lymphoma. But these trials are revealing that current BCL-2 inhibitors can have some pretty serious side-effects, which not everyone can tolerate. This is why Dr Vermeulen and his team are focusing their efforts on patients already at risk of developing cancer.

“Initially we want to focus on patients who have inherited a condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, which virtually guarantees they will develop bowel cancer. We think the benefits of using a BCL-2 inhibitor to prevent cancer from developing will outweigh the costs of side-effects for these patients.”

“But ultimately we want to figure out how to get around some of the more serious side-effects of the currently available drugs.” Says Dr Vermeulen. “We have some good ideas on how we might be able to do this, but we need to do much more research. All in all we expect it will take at least another 5 to 10 years before we know if our strategy will really pay off; but this latest research is certainly an exciting start.”

Further information

Read more about Louis Vermeulen’s research project here.

Bowel cancer is widely regarded as one of the most preventable cancers. But can we really stop bowel cancer before it starts? Read our blog post about chemoprevention here.

Read what Louis Vermeulen had to say about the new decision to classify bowel cancer as four separate diseases, and what that means for patients, here.



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