Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 00:17 UK

Chemical 'nips cancer in the bud'

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

A chemical cocktail may be able to destroy growths in the gut which have the potential to become colon cancers, say scientists.

Bowel polyps are not malignant - but patients may need to have them removed then undergo regular check-ups.

A team of US scientists reported in the journal Nature that their drug - so far tested on mice - could persuade the growths to disappear.

However, one specialist said it was too early to say if the cocktail was safe.

Many research teams are looking for effective ways to suppress or prevent polyps from forming among the healthy cells which line the colon.

These are a particular problem for people with a condition called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), which increases the risk of both polyps and the cancers linked to them.

This can mean frequent colonoscopy checks, in which a camera is inserted into the lower bowel, to make sure new polyps or cancers are not present.

Side-effect hope

Any treatment to prevent polyps would have to be used long-term, so relatively gentle methods, which include supplements or diet changes, are being investigated.

The University of Texas study focused on the type of polyp which causes three-quarters of the 33,000 colon cancers in the UK each year.

The researchers attempted to directly target the mechanism which controls whether the cells in the polyp live or die.

In normal cells, this process of "programmed cell death", or apoptosis, happens automatically, but in the polyps, the process does not work as well.

In laboratory tests, the experts found that their combination of two chemicals resulted in apoptosis in the polyp, without affecting surrounding tissues.

In mice bred to have large numbers of polyps and eventually tumours, the cocktail reduced the polyps four-fold and significantly extended lifespan.

The scientists say that because other cells appear to be unaffected, it is possible that the treatment could be used long-term with a minimum of side-effects.

Omega-3 focus

However, Professor Mark Hull, from the University of Leeds, said that the two chemicals involved would not necessarily be tolerated by the body over the decades of treatment required.

He is hopeful that his own research into an omega-3 fatty acid, which has shown promising results in an early trial, will eventually lead to a way of decreasing polyp growth.

He said: "I believe that to be worthwhile, any form of chemoprevention should be beneficial in more than one way, perhaps in terms of heart health as well as polyp prevention.

"This is why I've focused on omega-3, for which there is evidence of other significant benefits."

He said that it was unlikely that any long-term treatment for polyps would remove the need for colonoscopy entirely, but that it might greatly increase the intervals between checks.

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