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CWRU researchers studying pathway to slow growth of colorectal, other cancers

Case Western Reserve University sign atop a kiosk for posting bills against a backdrop of autumn leaves and a brick building.
Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine researchers are focusing on the liver and its role as a pathway for certain cancers to spread throughout the body.

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine researchers say they have discovered a means to potentially slow and stop the spread of colorectal, pancreatic and other cancers.

The research focuses on the liver and its role as a pathway for certain cancers to spread throughout the body, said Dr. Rui Wang, the lead researcher and an assistant professor in the medical school's Department of Surgery.

"This project is really just focusing on better understanding the communication between the surrounding liver tissue and the tumor in the liver," he said. "When we better understand the mechanism, then we can develop drugs and therapeutic options to block this communication. As a result, the tumor will now grow slow and be vulnerable to other therapies as well."

This is important because of the prevalence of colorectal cancer, as well as how deadly it can be, Wang said.

"Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the country," he said. "The patients with early stage colon cancer are manageable with surgery and therapy and it potentially is curable, so their outcomes are fairly good. But when the patients have metastatic colon cancer, it means that cancer's spread to the other parts of the body. Their outcome survival is really bad. The standard therapy doesn't work as well. The tumor doesn't respond to the therapy as well, so as a result, the patient survival... it's really, really devastating."

The liver is important to treating metastatic colon cancer because cancer first spreads to the liver in 80% of cases, Wang said. He and his team discovered the presence of a protein, known as LRG1, which "activate the growth and survival pathways for the cancer."

The team's previous research showed that blocking communication between LRG1 and cancer cells considerably slowed the cancer's growth. This resulted in mice with a tumor to live longer with a better chance of survival, Wang said.

Funding for the future

A recent federal grant will help move these discoveries toward a potential treatment.

This research is not only relevant for colorectal cancer, but potentially for pancreatic, lung and breast cancers that share the same pathway from the cancer source to the liver as the disease progresses through the body, Wang noted.

The National Cancer Institute awarded Wang and his team a five-year, nearly $2 million grant earlier this year to continue studying the role of the liver in colorectal cancer as part of a longer-term effort to develop new cancer treatments.

"The first step is that we will conduct much more rigorous experiments using cancer cell lines that are actually derived from patients to better document and characterize that pathway activation," Wang said.

The grant will be used to hire additional scientists to study the issue and train students to carry on this research, Wang said.

The goal is not only to develop a treatment for colorectal cancer, but to determine whether such a treatment would also be effective for pancreatic and other cancers, Wang added. This will include research to better understand the liver and cancer communication, but will involve more rigorous animal studies to determine the broader efficacy of the drug in treating cancer.

Wang intends to use the next five years to set up human clinical trials, he said. Those trials would potentially lead to new, more effective cancer treatments in the next several years, which is important given what's at stake, Wang said.

"In some way and shape, everybody, probably, they've been touched by cancer," he said. "Either it's your family member or friends and relatives and neighbors that you know, so we know it is a very devastating disease. As a community as a whole, the translational cancer research scientists, staff, people are working really hard to really attack this problem and hopefully we'll improve the quality of life and extend the lifespan of the patients that have this disease."

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.