Best Chance for Colon Cancer Survival – Don’t Let It Start

Two papers in the February 23, 2012, New England Journal of Medicine reported important findings in the fight against colon cancer. The first paper (Zuber, AG et al; Colonoscopic Polypectomy and Long-Term Prevention of Colorectal Cancer Deaths) conducted by American investigators establishes the benefit of polyp removal in the prevention of death from colorectal cancer. The study conducted upon 2,602 patients who had adenomas removed reveals a 53 percent reduction in mortality from colon cancer compared with the expected death rate from the disease in this population.

To put this into perspective – virtually no intervention in the advanced disease setting provides a survival advantage. The best we can usually do once the disease is established is an improvement in time to progression. When we do observe a true survival advantage it is usually in the range of a few percentage points and never of this magnitude. How might we explain this astonishingly positive result?

One way to view this finding is to reexamine the biology of cancer. One of the leading experts in the field, Bert Vogelstein, MD, from Johns Hopkins, explained colon carcinogenesis as a pattern of gene perturbations starting at atypia, progressing to carcinoma in situ and ending with invasive, metastatic disease. According to Dr. Vogelstein, the average colon cancer found in a patient at the time of colonoscopy has been present in that person’s colon for 27 years. From there it is only a hop, skip and a jump from one-centimeter adenomatous polyp to metastatic (lethal) disease, all playing out over the last three years in the natural history of the disease. Thus, cancer truly is a disease that doesn’t grow too much, but dies too little and interrupting this process while it is still slumbering can, it would seem, lead to cures.

What I find surprising is the success of the strategy. Since it is now well established that cancer can metastasize when it has achieved the rather diminutive proportions of 0.125 cubic centimeters or less and the average polyp can only be detected at one or more cubic centimeters, it is our good fortune that so many cancers chose not to (or could not) metastasize prior to detection. Reading between the lines, those 12 patients who died of colon cancer as opposed to the expected 25.4 are presumably those with early metastasizing disease. The next frontier will be the detection of these cancers when they are teenagers and not 20-somethings. It may be that proteomic analyses will provide an avenue for earlier detection in the future.

The second article is a European study (Quintero, E et al; Colonoscopy versus Fecal Immunohistochemical Testing in Colorectal-Cancer Screening) that compared colonoscopy with fecal blood testing in a large cohort of patients. While the rates of detection for colorectal cancer were similar, the rates of detecting both advanced and early adenomas, favored colonoscopy (p < .001). This study represents an interesting adjunct to the American study described above. Specifically, if the early detection (and removal) of adenomas can confer a survival advantage then it could be argued that colonoscopy by its virtue of it’s higher detection rate of these precancerous adenomas, is the preferred “screening” modality. With over 50,000 deaths attributed to colorectal cancer in the U.S. each year, the public health benefit of colonoscopies becomes an intersecting point of discussion. Until now, fecal occult blood testing yearly or sigmoidoscopies every several years has been considered equivalent to colonoscopies every 10 years starting at age 50. Do we need to move colonoscopies to the front of the line?

What is most interesting about both these reports is the low-tech nature of the study modalities – and the astonishing efficacy of their application. Colonoscopies have been conducted for decades. They are comparatively simple, do not require affymetrix chips, and yet provide demonstrable benefit that appears to exceed anything offered, to date, by the “genomic revolution.” Perhaps we should all keep an open mind about other comparatively low-tech methodologies that can provide survival advantages.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

One Response to Best Chance for Colon Cancer Survival – Don’t Let It Start

  1. Rich says:

    Seems a growing number of cancers are subject to significant prevention through use of Metformin. Ovarian cancer, typically found very late like Colon cancer, being one. I think it’s thought to be approx 40% reduction. Coupled with use of birth control pills (another preventative) outside of child bearing periods, I wonder how many cases could be stopped before they start.

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