National Cancer Institute Releases Promising New Data on Colorectal Cancer

NCI's research uncovers new potential drug targets and pathways that may someday be incorporated into new therapeutic strategies.

NCI’s research uncovers new potential drug targets and pathways that may someday be incorporated into new therapeutic strategies.

Recent research conducted by The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project revealed that colon and rectal cancers can now be grouped as a single type of cancer. This conclusion was based on the finding that regardless of anatomic location, the genetic aberrations in malignant colon and rectal tissues appear to be the same.

The study—funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Genome Research Institute, both of which are branches of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—was published online in the July 19, 2012, issue of the journal Nature. These new data were also added to their comprehensive list of sequences in the TCGA Data Portal, which provides a platform for researchers to search, download, and analyze data sets generated by TCGA.

“This finding of the true genetic nature of colon and rectal cancers is an important achievement in our quest to understand the foundations of this disease,” said Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, director of the NIH, in a press release. “The data and knowledge gained here have the potential to change the way we diagnose and treat cancers.”

The study also pinpointed several of the mutations that contribute to colorectal cancer. Of the 224 specimens studied, 24 genes were mutated in a significant number of cases. In addition to genes already determined to be associated with colorectal cancer in prior research, investigators found 3 more genes thought to be potential drivers of the disease.

The research group also identified 2 new potential drug targets: ERBB2 and IGF2. These genes, which regulate cell proliferation, were found to be overexpressed in colorectal cancers. According to the researchers, “This finding points to a potential drug therapy strategy in which inhibition of the products of these genes would slow progression of the cancer.”

Lastly, the researchers with TCGA Research Network uncovered new mutations in a particular signaling cascade called the WNT pathway. Discovery of this pathway could help in the development of WNT signaling inhibitors for the treatment of colorectal cancer patients.

NCI estimates that more than 143,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and that 51,500 are likely to die from the disease in 2012 alone.

“While it may take years to translate this foundational genetic data on colorectal cancers into new therapeutic strategies and surveillance methods, this genetic information unquestionably will be the springboard for determining what will be useful clinically against colorectal cancers,” noted Harold E. Varmus, MD, NCI director.