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Queen's team discover genes that could lead to new cancer treatment

By Victoria O'Hara

Experts at Queen's University are spearheading a major clinical trial that could lead to a new treatment for bowel cancer that may benefit thousands of patients.

The Belfast-based scientists have discovered how two genes – called MEK and MET – cause bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatment.

The multi-million pound trial, set to begin in September, was given the green light after the research funded by Cancer Research UK, was published this month in the international journal, Cell Reports.

The team at QUB are now set to test a new a 'double-hit' approach to overcome drug resistance.

They found that certain bowel cancers switch on a "survival mechanism" when they are treated with drugs that target faulty MEK genes.

The exciting discovery came when the researchers added drugs that fight the MET gene, the bowel cancer cells died.

Every year in Northern Ireland around 1,200 people are diagnosed and more than 400 people die from bowel cancer.

This makes the form of the disease Northern Ireland's second biggest cancer killer.

At least 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year across the UK and more than half of them develop the aggressive form of the disease which does not respond to standard therapy.

The five-year overall survival in this patient group is less than 5%.

Symptoms often develop late in the disease, leaving limited scope for treatment and potential cure.

The author of the study, Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck, a Cancer Research UK clinician scientist at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at QUB said: "We've 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."

The consultant oncologist at the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust will lead the £4.75million trial.

As part the trial personalised medicine will be given to patients in Northern Ireland and across Europe.

Queen's Vice Chancellor Professor Patrick Johnston said the research had identified an "exciting new route" to treat patients.

"Understanding the genes that cause bowel cancer is a key focus of our research," he said.

Professor David Waugh, Director of the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology, 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."

Nell Barrie, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, said: "Finding new ways to treat aggressive bowel cancers is vitally important to help more people beat the disease.

"We look forward to seeing the results of clinical trials that use a 'double-hit' approach to overcome drug resistance."


Symptoms that might be signs of bowel cancer include:

  • Blood in your stools or bleeding from your rectum
  • Loose and more frequent bowel movements lasting three weeks or more
  • Abdominal pain or feeling of constant bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness for no obvious reason
  • Fatigue and breathlessness

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