Page last updated at 23:26 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 00:26 UK

Stem cell hope for bowel cancer

By Michelle Roberts
BBC News health reporter in Oxford

Bowel cancer cell
Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK

Destroying abnormal stem cells could be a way to kill off bowel cancer in its very earliest stages, say UK experts.

Immature cells line the gut and normally replace and repair the tissue but malfunctions can lead to cancer.

Scientists believe detecting and obliterating these rogue cancer stem cells as soon as they appear could be a potent new anti-cancer strategy.

A UK National Stem Cell Network conference heard the same method might also work for other cancers.

I can see trials within the next three years in patients to knock out these cells
Professor Malcolm Alison
Barts and The London School of Medicine

Professor Malcolm Alison, of Barts and The London School of Medicine, has been looking at how bowel cancers grow and spread in the body.

He said there was mounting evidence to show that faulty self-renewing stem cells are to blame.

And like the root of a weed, unless they are removed they will continue to propagate.

Scientists are still uncertain exactly which cells in the gut become cancer stem cells.

But they know definitively that they exist - and that they play a central role in the formation of cancer.

Once these are found, it would be possible to identify and treat these cells before life-threatening tumours develop, said Professor Alison.

Less invasive

Early detection would make treatment easier, less invasive and more effective.

Professor Alison said: "Drugs could be targeted to specifically work on cancer stem cells and so provide a more direct approach for treating bowel cancer.

"For instance, it may be possible to kill these abnormal stem cells by triggering them to self-destruct.

"I can see trials within the next three years in patients to knock out these cells."

A more targeted approach to treatment could avoid some of the unpleasant side-effects encountered with chemotherapy, which attacks healthy as well as cancerous cells.

Adeyinka Ebo, of Cancer Research UK, said: "Finding out more about the cells where cancer begins is crucial in helping scientists to detect cancer early, when treatment is simpler and more effective.

"If researchers can identify which cells in the gut will become cancer stem cells it would provide a vital step forward towards beating this type of cancer."

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK. More than 100 people every day are diagnosed with the disease.



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