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University of Hull leading pioneering new bowel cancer research

The University of Hull has been awarded a £75k grant for pioneering new research which hopes to improve radiotherapy outcomes in bowel cancer treatment.

Radiotherapy remains one of the most effective, non-invasive treatments for certain cancers, including bowel cancer.

The challenge we face is that some patients don’t respond as well to radiotherapy as others, which can lead to treatment not being as effective.

For example, if a patient’s tumour has low oxygen levels, it can make it more resistant to radiotherapy, needing up to three times higher doses of radiation. This means radiotherapy can be ineffective at treating bowel cancer at the lower dose levels approved to deliver to patients.

microscopes in a lab
Success in this work could down the line lead to improved quality of life through more effective radiotherapy treatments

Supported by funding from Bowel Research UK, a team at the University of Hull is now investigating how a family of proteins normally involved in cell survival and spread functions in low oxygen conditions in bowel cancer cells, and whether targeting them can improve response to radiotherapy.

Dr Isabel Monteiro Dos Santos Pires, Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science, said: “Previous data from the lab has found that one specific member of this family, ADAM10, can be affected by low oxygen conditions and can affect the growth of bowel cancer cells.

In this study we are taking this further and aim to further understand the behaviour of ADAM10 in bowel cancer in low oxygen conditions and identify whether targeting this protein or others in its family can increase the sensitivity of bowel cancer cells to radiotherapy.

Dr Isabel Monteiro Dos Santos Pires

“This is particularly important in the context of low-oxygen driven radiotherapy resistance.”

Success in this work could down the line lead to improved quality of life through more effective radiotherapy treatments with reduced side effects, as well as improving treatment outcomes for bowel cancer patients – especially those with lower oxygen levels present in their tumours, potentially saving lives.

Dr Raj Roy, a Consultant Clinical Oncologist at the Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and the study’s co-applicant, said: “Radiotherapy alone or in combination with low dose chemotherapy are used extensively in the pre-operative setting in rectal cancer and has shown a significant improvement in local control in comparison to surgery alone.

“However, in practice we see only about 10 per cent of patients show a complete response in their tumour to radiotherapy, and about 50 per cent responding partially. That leaves a significant proportion of patients who do not respond well to radiotherapy and currently, we do not have any mechanism to know beforehand who these patients are who can therefore be treated differently, or their tumour modified appropriately to make it more radiosensitive.

The current study is an aim to shed more light on the biology of low oxygen on tumours and how radiotherapy can be more effectively delivered in such tumours.

Dr Raj Roy

Lucy Wiseman is a PhD student at the University of Hull in Dr Pires’ lab, and will be developing the research in the lab.

She said: “According to the latest data released from the Office of National Statistics, bowel cancer is diagnosed in over 36,000 individuals every year in England alone, rising by 23 per cent since 2001.

In a recent study of stage two and three early onset rectal cancer, for example, pre-operative radiotherapy was shown to have no effect on patient prognosis while post-operative radiotherapy may even reduce survival time in these patients.

Lucy Wiseman

“Low oxygen, radio-resistant cancers present a significant challenge in improving treatment outcomes for bowel cancer patients and our research aims to validate a novel drug that, when given alongside radiotherapy, could sensitise these patients to ionising radiation.”

Lucy Wiseman, Hull PhD student
Lucy Wiseman, PhD student at the University of Hull

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