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Bowel cancer breakthrough brings hope

Better early screening is likely after a new Australian discovery.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 4 mins

Check for early signs

The symptoms of bowel cancer can be easy to miss, but they may include:

  • Bleeding from the rectum (back passage), or blood in your stools (faeces) 

  • A recent, ongoing change in bowel habits – for example, looser stools, constipation, more frequent trips to the toilet, or stools that are narrower than usual 
  • Abdominal pain, cramping or bloating 

  • Unexplained weight loss 

  • Unexplained tiredness (which may also be due toanaemia). 

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. In particular, bleeding from the rectum should never be ignored. 

Health Direct has a symptom checker here

Under the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, Australians aged between 50 and 74 receive a free bowel screening test every two years.  

Bowel cancer is the second biggest cause of cancer deaths in Australia. It will affect 1 in 14 people, men and women, by the time they reach 85.

People aged between 50 and 74 are at a higher risk. However, an increasing number of younger Australians are being diagnosed with the disease, with 1 in 9 new cases occurring in people under 50.

Bowel cancer claims more than 100 lives in Australia each week, yet around 90% of cases can be successfully treated if detected early.

So, a new Australian discovery that puts bowel cancer “on ice” holds a lot of promise for the early detection of the disease.

At the centre of the Australian National University (ANU) research is an immune system protein, known as Ku70, which can be manipulated to help overcome the cancer.

Lead researcher Dr Abhimanu Pande says the protein can be activated or “turned on” like a light switch by using a combination of new and existing drugs.

“In its activated state, the protein acts like a surveillance system, detecting signs of damaged DNA in our cells,” he said.

“Damaged DNA is a sign of danger that can turn healthy cells into cancer cells.”

The research shows that Ku70 can “cool off” cancer cells and mop up damaged DNA. The protein prevents the cancer cells from becoming more aggressive and spreading throughout the body, essentially deactivating them and keeping them in a dormant state.

Professor Si Ming Man, also from ANU, said future bowel cancer screening methods could include checking the levels of Ku70 in pre-cancerous polyps – a abnormal growths of tissue found in the colon, before healthy cells turn cancerous.

“Our research shows Ku70 is a good immune biomarker, meaning it helps us predict who will fare better or worse after being diagnosed with bowel cancer,” Professor Man said.

The ANU researchers are calling on people of all ages to be aware of the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer.

“We know early detection and treatment is vital to overcoming not only bowel cancer, but potentially other cancers as well,” Professor Man said.

“We hope the cancer research conducted at ANU helps raise awareness of cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.”

Related reading: ANU, Health Direct


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer, National Seniors Australia

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