RESEARCHERS from the University of Newcastle think they may have found a new way to treat late stage bowel cancer.
Professor Xu Dong Zhang and his team have identified a molecule known as "MILIP" which is highly active in late-stage bowel cancer.
But removing it from bowel cancer cells can make the cells more sensitive to treatment, and stop them from growing.
"In bowel cancer, most patients who are diagnosed at an early stage can often be cured with surgery," Professor Zhang said.
"However as soon as the bowel cancer spreads into other sites, it is usually treated by anti-cancer drugs.
"Unfortunately, most patients will eventually develop a resistance to these drugs."
Professor Zhang said resistance to the drugs occurred when these molecules were switched on or became more active in bowel cancer cells. Their discovery, while still in the early stages, had the potential to save lives.
"If our project is successful in patients with bowel cancer, we have found this molecule is also highly active in many types of cancer - so we should be able to translate it to other cancers," he said.
Professor Zhang said Australia had one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, with more than 16,000 Australians expected to be diagnosed in 2020.
Almost 90 per cent of cases could be treated successfully if diagnosed early, but fewer than 40 per cent were detected at an early stage. The five-year survival rate for bowel cancer in Australia is 69 per cent. The project could "significantly" improve outcomes for patients with late-stage bowel cancer, particularly those with high levels of MILIP.
Professor Zhang said the initial findings from this project would form the basis for developing and testing new drugs to target and prevent the activation of MILIP. It offered hope of a new treatment approach to target these molecules, and make existing anti-cancer drugs more effective.
If Professor Zhang's latest study is successful, his team hopes to also develop a low cost, easy-to-use laboratory kit that can detect the levels of MILIP in bowel cancer patients. They will also measure the levels of MILIP in patients as a way of predicting how well a patient will respond to their treatment.
"We are definitely excited, and we have been working hard towards this," Professor Zhang said.
Their research had been supported by a Cancer Council two-year grant of more than $445,000.
"I would especially like to thank the Cancer Council and its supporters. Without their support we would not be able to do what we are doing," Professor Zhang said.