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Researchers from RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) and the University of Nice, France, may have discovered a gene, KCNQ1, that is associated with the survival of patients who have colon cancer.

The gene creates pore-forming proteins in cell membranes, known as ion channels. This could be an important breakthrough in the development of increasingly effective colon cancer therapies and new diagnostics that will provide an improved accuracy in the prognosis for colon cancer patients.

The research team, led by Professor Brian Harvey, Department of Molecular Medicine, RCSI, published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS). They identified the molecular mechanisms by which the KCNQ1 gene suppresses both the growth and spread of colon cancer cells. The gene functions by producing an ion channel protein, trapping a tumour promoting protein (beta-catenin) in the cell membranes before it can enter the nucleus of the cell to cause the growth of more cancer cells.

In over 300 colon cancer patients, those who had higher expressions of the KCNQ1 gene were found not only to have a longer survival but also less chance of relapse. Commenting on the significance of the discovery, Professor Harvey said:

“It could open up the possibility of developing new drug treatments that will be able harness the suppressive properties of the gene to target the colon specifically, without exposing other tissues in the body to unnecessary chemotherapy. The development of more targeted treatments for colon cancer is vital to improve the prognosis and quality of life for colon cancer patients.” In Ireland, bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death as almost 2,500 Irish people are diagnosed with the cancer annually.