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Enzyme Could Help Diagnose, Treat Colon Cancer


An enzyme known as ALDH1B1 could help clinicians diagnose colon cancer earlier than is currently possible. The University of Colorado Cancer Center research team also noted that the enzyme could help treat colon cancer as well.

Risk of colon cancer is 1 in 20

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in adults in the United States. The estimated number of new cases of colon cancer for 2011, according to the American Cancer Society, is 101,700. The earlier colon cancer is detected, the better chance treatment will be successful.

Under the leadership of Vasilis Vasiliou, PhD, professor of molecular toxicology at the University’s School of Pharmacy, a research team evaluated colon cancer in 40 patients, in whom they found a form of the aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme (ALDH1B1) in 39 of the cases. This enzyme typically is found only in stem cells, but in these cancer patients it was present in exceedingly high levels.

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Unlike other potential biomarkers for colon cancer that have been discovered in the past, the ALDH1B1 enzyme surpasses them all because it has such a dominant presence. The study’s lead author, Ying Chen, PhD, assistant professor of molecular toxicology at the University’s School of Pharmacy, noted that ALDH1B1 seems to facilitate the development or growth of colon cancer cells because it would not be present at high levels in every cell if it were just a byproduct of the cancer.

Experts have identified numerous risk factors for colon cancer, including age (more than 90% of people who develop colorectal cancer are older than 50), a personal history of polyps or bowel disease, family history of colorectal cancer, inherited syndromes (e.g., familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer), being African American or an Ashkenazi Jew, consuming a diet high in red and/or processed meat, smoking, alcohol use, lack of exercise, and being overweight.

The discovery of the ALDH1B1 enzyme’s apparent role in colon cancer has triggered investigations into its role in the makeup of tumor cells and what elements may inhibit and activate it. Chen notes that the enzyme may also provide a means to treat colon cancer.

American Cancer Society
University of Colorado