New tool in bowel cancer fight

Hudson Institute

Drugs that are being trialled to treat leukaemia could also be used to fight bowel cancer after a breakthrough by Hudson Institute of Medical Research scientists.

Dr Chunhua Wan, Researcher at Hudson Institute of Medical Research
Dr Chunhua Wan

In a world-first, researchers found that the drugs could potentially be used to fight bowel cancer.

The researchers were using Nobel Prize-winning genetic screening technology CRISPR to identify new targets for bowel cancer tumours when they realised that the gene KMT2A – usually associated with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia – promotes bowel cancer. It does this by fuelling uncontrolled growth of the tumour, and encouraging the cancer cells ability to ‘self-renew’, preventing the tumour from regression or differentiation.

Key Points

  • The study suggests KMT2A inhibitors may be promising targeted therapies for bowel cancer
  • Targeting KMT2A has been shown to stop growth and self-renewal of bowel cancer cells
  • Inhibitors with similar structures are being trialled for use on leukaemia, so may be used to treat bowel cancer.

They then trialled two agents that inhibit KMT2A and found that these block bowel cancer growth and self-renewal, with very little damage to normal cells. These inhibitors are very similar to others which are currently in clinical trials to treat leukaemia.

“Targeting this gene, KMT2A, reverses the aggressiveness of bowel cancer cells, and re-educates them to become normal cells,” said Dr Chunhua Wan, first author of the paper published in Science Advances.

How targeted therapy works against bowel cancer

A/Prof Ron Firestein, Head of the Cancer Centre, Hudson Institute of Medical Research
A/Prof Ron Firestein

Targeted therapy is a relatively new way of treating bowel cancer. It has many advantages over conventional therapies such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as it only affects cancer cells, is better tolerated by patients and has fewer side effects.

“Due to limited therapeutic options, bowel cancer patients, especially those diagnosed at late stages, have very poor outcomes. Our findings may pave the way to developing new targeted therapies and benefit the treatment of bowel cancer patients,” said Associate Professor Ron Firestein.

Collaborators | University of Michigan Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Funding | National Health and Medical Research Council

About bowel cancer

  • Bowel cancer is the second deadliest cancer in the Australian general population.
  • About 300 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer every week and more than 100 Australians die from the disease.
  • Australian women have an eight per cent risk and men have a 10 per cent risk of developing bowel cancer.

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