Gene that causes bowel cancer tracked down: Early surgery could save many thousands of lives


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SCIENTISTS have located a gene that causes bowel cancer. The discovery will eventually prevent many thousands of deaths from this common disease.

The researchers have pinpointed the gene for certain inherited forms of the disease. They believe the defective gene is the most common inherited disorder, being carried by up to 250,000 people in Britain alone. Finding the gene will soon lead to a diagnostic test for healthy carriers who are at high risk of developing cancer of the colon or rectum in later life. That could enable surgeons to operate before tumours develop.

Scientists from three research groups in the US and Finland collaborated in the search for the gene, which accounts for about 15 per cent of colorectal cancers. Because such cancer is so common - there are more than 28,000 new cases a year in the UK - it has been hard to find out which are the inherited forms and which are the result of environmental influences, such as diet. However, four years of painstaking work on two large families with a history of the disease has identified a region of chromosome 2 - one of the 23 pairs of human chromosomes - that is responsible.

Two of the scientific leaders, Albert de la Chapelle, of Helsinki University, and Bert Vogelstein, of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, estimate that the defective gene is carried by one in every 200 people in the Western population.

Stanley Hamilton, Professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins, said that finding the gene's location on the chromosome will quickly lead to identifying the gene itself. 'Once the gene is found, it will permit the testing of families at risk.'

Doctors have long known about an inherited component to colorectal cancer, because people who have a close relative with the disease - a parent, brother or sister - are between two and four times as likely to develop the disease as is the general population.

The research will be published tomorrow in the journal Science.