Colon cancer researchers find genetic vulnerabilities

Posted: July 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm

More than 200 researchers investigating colon cancer tumors have found genetic vulnerabilities that could lead to powerful new treatments. The hope is that drugs designed to strike these weak spots will eventually stop a cancer that is now almost inevitably fatal once it has spread.

Scientists increasingly see cancer as a genetic disease defined not so much by where it starts colon, liver, brain, breast but by genetic aberrations that are its Achilles' heel. And with a detailed understanding of which genetic changes make a cancer grow and thrive, they say they can figure out how best to mount an attack. They caution that most of the drugs needed to target the cancer mutations have yet to be developed.

The colon cancer study, published Wednesday in Nature, is the first part of a sweeping effort that is expected to produce a flood of discoveries for a wide range of cancers.

"There are so many different ways that you can attack this tumor type," said Raju Kucherlapati, the principal investigator for the colon cancer project and a professor of genetics and of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "We have an opportunity to completely change the landscape."

Researchers have studied colon cancer before and have identified mutations that seemed critical, but their work lacked the scope of the new project and provided more limited information on genetic changes, said Dr. Sanford Markowitz, a colon cancer and genomics expert at Case Western Reserve University.

He, like nearly every other leading scientist in colon cancer genomics, is an author of the study.

About 150,000 Americans receive a diagnosis of colon or rectal cancer each year, and about 50,000 die annually from the disease.

The hope now is that the genetic alterations driving tumors are operating through only a limited number of genetic pathways that can be targeted by a more manageable number of drugs.

Those drugs have yet to be developed, said Dr. S. Gail Eckhardt, the head of the division of medical oncology at the University of Colorado and another author of the study. But, she added, the work "confirms where some of the drug development should be going."

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Colon cancer researchers find genetic vulnerabilities

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