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Understanding the origin of Barrett’s Syndrome and how it can develop into oesophageal cancer

Dr Benjamin Beck in Brussels is using his Worldwide Cancer Research funding to track down the very first cells which go on to cause oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe).

More than 8,500 new cases of oesophageal cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year- that means over 23 people receive a diagnosis every day.

Barrett’s syndrome is a common condition that can sometimes lead to oesophageal cancer. Scientists already know that during Barrett’s syndrome the cells lining the food pipe change type and shape, but they don’t really know how this can sometimes eventually lead to cancer.

“Understanding exactly how oesophageal cancer starts is the cornerstone of developing new therapeutic strategies to beat the disease,” says Dr Beck.

“In this project we will use state-of-the-art ‘tracing’ experiments in genetically-engineered mice to follow the progress of cells in the food pipe- from the moment early cancer-causing genes are activated to the point full-blown tumours develop.”

Dr Beck and his team hope that the results of these experiments will help them to identify key genes regulating Barrett’s syndrome and oesophageal cancer. “If we can identify exactly which genes are being activated at the very start,” says Dr Beck, “then we can work to develop brand new anticancer therapies to target them.”

Improving radiotherapy success in oesophageal cancer

Dr Ludwig Dubois and his team are trying to improve treatment success rates for oesophageal cancer (cancer of the food pipe).Around 20 people in the UK every day are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer* and although it is treatable, it is hard to cure using the current treatment options.

“One of the important characteristics of oesophageal cancer is that the tumours often have regions of low oxygen concentration,” says Dr Dubois. “We think we can exploit this by designing new drugs which specifically target these regions.”

Dr Dubois is particularly interested in one such drug, called TH-302, which has been shown to kill cancer cells within these regions of low oxygen, and help improve the overall success of chemotherapy treatments. He thinks TH-302 might also enhance the success of radiotherapy, a standard treatment for oesophageal cancer. Radiotherapy is known to be less effective in tumour areas with low oxygen.

To investigate this idea, Dr Dubois is using samples from mice and patients with oesophageal tumours. “We really believe that this combination treatment could enhance the chance of curing oesophageal cancer,” says Dr Dubois. “But if this is true, we also need to see if the combination of TH-302 with radiotherapy is safe for healthy tissues such as the lung and the oesophagus. Finally, we want to investigate if imaging these low oxygen tumour regions before therapy might also help us predict treatment effectiveness.”

* Latest statistics from Cancer Research UK