Low levels of a specific protein identify aggressive colorectal cancer

U.K. scientists have zeroed in on a biomarker that they believe would help determine if a patient's colorectal cancer has a major chance of spreading. Doctors could potentially use the discovery to rapidly identify patients who need aggressive chemotherapy treatment to prevent metastasis, and it also offers a potential new drug target.

The protein FOX03 is at the center of the research team's work. They determined that patients with low levels of the substance appeared to have a significant risk that their cancer would spread. University of Southampton researchers produced the finding, and their work is detailed in the British Journal of Cancer.

Like some major discoveries, the study used a simple process. The researchers note that previous trials determined that FOX03 is part of a group of transcription factors involved in regulating genes that suppress tumors. With that in mind, they focused their research specifically on its role in colorectal cancer, and how various levels of the protein may affect tumor growth. To do this, they compared FOX03 levels in tissue samples from patients suffering from bowel cancer at different stages. They discovered that declining levels of FOX03 seemed to connect directly to more brutal forms of colorectal cancer that were likelier to spread.

Study author Marc Bullock, a bowel cancer surgeon at Southampton General Hospital and a clinical research training fellow with the U.K.'s Medical Research Council, noted in a statement that "this is the first time that such a clear link between levels of the protein and tumor growth has been identified."

And while more research is needed, FOX03 has enormous potential. It can help boost personalized medicine in the treatment of colorectal cancer patients, singling out patients sooner who have more aggressive forms of the disease and for whom extra chemotherapy could prevent their cancer from returning. That's crucial, considering the 5-year survival rate for the disease is typically in the low single digits. But equally as important, FOX03 now presents itself as a viable target for new drugs, the researchers argue, considering its apparent connection to tumor growth.

Their work, funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK, is the latest effort from a number of research venues around the world focused on developing new colorectal cancer screening methods.

- read the release
- here's the study