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    Research home > Beat Cancer Project > Bowel cancer: Finding a new treatment

    Bowel cancer: Finding a new treatment

    Dr Michael Michael

    Diet and microRNA-mediated control of apoptosis: A Role in colorectal cancer prevention

    Our research

    Bowel cancer is the second most frequent cause of cancer-related death in Australia. It is known that diet can influence the risk of developing bowel cancer. This study has shown that butyrate, a small molecule which is produced in the gut by bacteria as they digest dietary fibre, can influence the activity of intestinal genes in a manner which may explain the protective nature of a high fibre diet. We have shown that butyrate can kill bowel cancer cells and have identified some of the genes that are associated with this cancer-specific response. By better understanding the genes associated with this response, we hope to identify new drug targets that might be useful for developing future anti-cancer treatments.

    What we aim to achieve

    We would like to convince Australians that a healthy diet has fundamental benefits for their gut health and their risk of developing bowel cancer. Prevention is the greatest cure. By studying how butyrate kills colon cancer cells, while beneficially providing nutrition to "normal" gut cells, we hope to mimic this process with novel drugs. Ultimately, this may lead to a tablet that can treat bowel cancer, or even prevent it from developing.

    Our next steps and milestones

    This Beat Cancer Project funded research has enabled us to identify many new factors (microRNAs) that control 

    • The multiplication of cancer cells (proliferation),
    • Programmed cell death (apoptosis)  and 
    • The response to butyrate in colorectal cancer cells. 

    We are currently sorting through these to determine which might be useful as novel therapies on their own, or in combination with existing chemotherapeutic drugs. The project has also highlighted the role of one particular microRNA that may prevent cells from becoming cancerous. We now wish to test that hypothesis in models and have requested support from the NHMRC for such studies.

    We have identified factors that can suppress the growth of, and kill, cancer cells (tumour suppressing microRNAs). This leads us to explore new strategies to administer these therapeutic RNAs directly to tumours. We are devoting much of our attention to this challenge.

    What motivates me

    I’m motivated by the challenge of discovering what drives cancer cells to become aggressive and how we can stop this from happening. There is the opportunity to help save lives, by enhancing cancer prevention or by contributing towards the development of new therapies. Few things can match the satisfaction of a successful day in the lab.

    My message to supporters

    Understanding how our diet might reduce our risk of developing bowel cancer may lead to the development of strategies for preventing or treating tumours. While this is basic research, its goals and potential benefits are clearly defined. It is crucial that we continue to support good basic research which will underpin new clinical discoveries. We are very grateful to Cancer Council SA and its generous donors for backing our project which we hope will ultimately deliver novel anti-cancer drugs.


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