Scientists identify potential colon cancer biomarker

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Scientists at the University of Cincinnati (UC) have identified a new biomarker that could potentially help predict a person's risk of developing colon cancer and how aggressive it may become, according to research published in the Jan. 16 issue of PLoS Genetics.

The UC team has identified hotspots, or areas of deleted genetic data, that play a role in regulating gene expression and influence colon cancer progression. Researchers speculated that the hotspots could be used as a biomarker for colon cancer.

For the study, UC researchers looked at the actions of the AMACR gene in human tissue. AMACR breaks down branched-chain fatty acids, a type of molecule only found in animals that eat plants. Previous research showed that plant-derived fatty acids, such as those found in red meat and dairy products, can accelerate cancer growth.

"From the colon tissues, we've identified two types of genetic deletions that may allow us to predict whether people will have a good or bad cancer outcome," said the study’s first author Xiang Zhang, PhD, UC environmental health research associate. "If a person carries one of the deletions, it may predispose him or her to a more aggressive type of colon cancer."

UC researchers analyzed the AMACR gene's abnormal expression patterns using a laser-capture microdissection technique to identify the key biological events that lead to colon cancer progression. They also compared gene sequencing data from the general population—obtained from whole blood samples—to that of the human colon cancer tissue samples.

In addition to discovering the hotspots that trigger abnormal AMACR expression, they also identified specific proteins (transcription factors) that would normally bind to the deleted sequences to maintain normal gene expression.

"Our hope is that this new knowledge will help us develop better diagnostic tools for colon cancer," says Zhang.

The UC research team said it expects to expand this research into a multi-center study in the near future. The project is currently funded by the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Army Prostate Cancer Program.