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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 23:59 GMT
'Cancer sign' identified
Researchers examined cancerous tissue
Researchers examined cancerous tissue
Scientists have detected a body chemical which could indicate the development of cancer.

Doctors believe the presence of the protein is a sign of early molecular changes in cancer of the oesophagus, or food pipe, and stomach.

The discovery, by researchers at Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, could lead to better ways of diagnosing and treating both kinds of cancer.

The protein concerned is called guanylyl cyclase C (GCC).

There's an urgent need for earlier diagnosis and targeted, more effective treatments

Dr Mary Berrington
Cancer Research UK
GCC is normally produced by the single layer of cells lining the intestine.

In people who have either oesophageal or stomach cancer, a step in developing that cancer can be a condition called intestinal metaplasia.

In that condition, the cells which line the oesophagus or stomach change their character and start to look like intestinal cells.

Because the Jefferson team knew GCC was expressed in normal intestinal cells, they decided to examine if it was expressed in the oesophagus or stomach in patients with intestinal metaplasia. They found that it was.

The researchers also looked at patients with stomach and oesophageal cancer.

GCC genetic material was found in all five cases of oesophageal cancer examined and eight out of nine cases of stomach cancer.

The genetic material was also found in three out of five and six of seven "healthy" tissues adjacent to the oesophageal and stomach cancers.

The researchers suggest this means the presence of GCC could be a sign of early molecular changes associated with the development of cancer.

In tests on normal oesophagus and stomach tissue, GCC was not present.

Early diagnosis need

Stephanie Shulz, assistant professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College, said their findings could lead to targeted treatments in addition to helping diagnose oesophageal and stomach cancers early.

She told BBC News Online: "If you can find disease at a molecular level, it may indicate patients have a more advanced disease than they present with.

"You may then give them a more aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy.

The team hopes to carry out studies involving larger numbers of patients.

Larger trial

They are also working to develop an antibody to better detect GCC's presence.

Dr Mary Berrington, science information manager for Cancer Research UK, told BBC News Online: "This is interesting early work, and the next thing is to see if the results hold true in much larger series of patients.

"Survival rates for oesophageal and stomach cancer are low, and there's an urgent need for earlier diagnosis and targeted, more effective treatments - finding specific molecular markers associated with the development of particular cancers can be an important first step."

The research is being presented to the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics in Atlanta.

See also:

17 Mar 00 | C-D
Oesophageal cancer
17 Mar 00 | C-D
Stomach cancer
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