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Stopping the spread of bowel cancer

Monday 27 May, 2019

Professor John Mariadason. Professor and Head of Oncogenic Transcription Laboratory and Olivia Newton-John Research Institute.

Over the past two decades the five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with late stage bowel cancer has not improved and remains below 15%.

That makes it urgent to develop new treatments for people who currently have the disease or who will develop it.

Bowel cancer cells

Researchers have known for some time that bowel cancer cells can be different shapes. If the cancer cell still resembles the normal bowel cells, they are called well differentiated and if they look nothing like the normal bowel cells, then they’re called poorly differentiated cells.

Researchers don’t know why the cells are different shapes, but they do know that those that look nothing like the normal bowel cells tend to respond poorly to treatment. They are more aggressive, and they spread around the body more freely (metastasise).

The life expectancy of people whose cancer has spread to other parts of their body (metastasised) is between 12 months and about 30 months.

Poorly differentiated colon cancers are more likely to spread around the body and don’t respond as well to treatment.

Two genes may be crucial to stopping the spread of bowel cancer

 Thanks to generous donation from Victorians, Professor John Mariadason at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute has been awarded a Cancer Council grant to find better treatments for people diagnosed with late stage bowel cancer.

Professor John Mariadason and his team.

“Through my work I see first-hand the suffering that patients and families affected with cancer experience,” Professor Mariadason said.

“Having received extensive education, training and research support to develop a career as a cancer researcher, my motivation is to use this knowledge and experience to reduce the suffering of cancer patients, by developing meaningful new treatments.”

"I’ve been intrigued by this difference in the shapes of bowel cancer cells for a long time.”

After comparing several hundred bowel cancers of different types, Professor Mariadason and his team have discovered two genes that are ‘turned on’ in the well differentiated bowel cancers and ‘turned off’ in the poorly differentiated ones. The genes are EHF and CDX1.

Once this is established the next goal will be to use drugs to turn the genes back on and turn the poorly differentiated cells back into well differentiated cells.

The two main benefits of achieving this are:

  • It’ll stop those cancers moving around the body further, and thus reduce the likelihood of further metastasis.
  • But more importantly Professor Mariadason believes it will make those cancers more sensitive and responsive to chemotherapy.


Turning these two genes on may stop the spread of the cancer.

“We are working tirelessly to find a treatment for this awful disease so that families won’t experience the loss of a loved one to bowel cancer," Professor Mariadason said.

“I hope to develop strong evidence that differentiation therapy may represent a new way to improve outcomes for patients affected with bowel cancer by reducing metastatic spread and enhancing the response of colorectal cancers to chemotherapy.

“I hope that these pre-clinical findings will provide the rationale for testing a new drug combination in early-phase clinical trials in patients affected with bowel cancer.

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