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Otago researchers make bowel cancer breakthroughs

Mon, 07/01/2019 - 14:18
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Two studies by University of Otago scientists could lead to new treatments for bowel cancer patients. The first study discovered a way to view the immune cell 'landscape' of bowel cancer tumours, paving the way towards more individualised medicine and treatment for many other diseases in future. The second identified unique genetic patterns for four different sub-types of colorectal cancer – which respond differently to a variety of cancer treatments.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Immunology, the researchers the incredible diversity of immune cells that are inside a colorectal tumour. Immune cells are known to protect against cancer growth and this work provides new information on the types of cells present and how they might be beneficial for the patient.

Roslyn Kemp (Credit: University of Otago)
Roslyn Kemp (Credit: University of Otago)

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Roslyn Kemp, explained they are using a new technology called high-dimensional mass cytometry to identify cells in the tumours of people with bowel cancer.

“It can be thought of as taking a higher resolution ‘photo’ of the inside of the tumour. The photo may reveal new types of cells that may or may not be targetable by drugs or reveal different composition of immune cell populations in individuals that could be used to predict the course of the disease.”

Associate Professor Kemp added that the results of their study have shown there is huge diversity in the type of immune cells that infiltrate the tumour, which means that any one or more likely a combination of many immune cells, could have an effect on patient outcomes. The technique could be used to study a number of different diseases.

“It demonstrates the use of a new technology to study the immune response in much more detail than other methods currently used, providing new types of information for patients,” she explained. “It is a step towards personalised medicine, sometimes referred to as precision medicine, since each patient’s tumour could be looked at with this amount of detail.”

The next step is to carry out a similar study with a slightly different technique to further investigate where all the cells are in the tumour and how that might affect cell function and relationships between types of cells and patient data like stage of disease and patient survival.

The research is supported by the Cancer Research Trust, Lotteries Health Research, the University’s School of Biomedical Sciences with Associate Professor Kemp supported by the NZSO Roche Translational Cancer Research Fellowship.

Genetic patterns for sub-types of bowel cancer

The second study that identified unique genetic patterns for four different sub-types of colorectal cancer, which respond differently to a variety of cancer treatments – could mean in future clinicians can personalise treatment to people with different forms of the disease.

Dr Rachel Purcell is studying the gut microbiome in bowel cancer and recently published a study in the Scientific Reports journal. Purcell and her colleagues are the first to identify unique 'communities' of bacteria - with specific genetic patterns - present in four different sub-types of colorectal cancer.

Bowel cancer is currently treated as one disease, but scientists and clinicians believe many subtypes of the disease exist. Different subtypes of bowel cancer may respond better to different treatments, typically radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove the tumour.

Internationally, scientists are studying the microbiome - or communities of trillions of bacteria and the genes that comprise them - to understand their impact on health and disease. Gut microbiomes are potentially very important to diseases of the gut such as bowel cancer.

Using the Cancer Society's tissue bank, based at the University of Otago, Christchurch, Purcell and colleagues analysed samples of colorectal tumour from more than 500 patients. She also has access to detailed information about those patients over the period of a decade, such as the kinds of treatment they had and survival rates.

The next step for Purcell and her colleagues is to analyse tissue bank samples to see which treatments worked best for patients with particular sub-types of cancer.

This will ultimately allow clinicians to determine the best treatment for individual patients and means patients do not have treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, if large-scale population data shows it does not work well against the sub-type of cancer they have.