Research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Oncology, has found a new way to help patients with advanced bowel cancer.
The new test is said to help determine the best treatment for individuals, potentially reducing healthcare costs and improving patient outcomes.
Nell Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said bowel cancer is the second-biggest cancer killer, making it vital to find better ways to tackle the disease.
"This research may lead to new options for patients with advanced bowel cancer, which can be hard to treat – the next step is to find out if this can be used by doctors in the clinic,” Mr Barrie explained.
Researchers from St. James’s University Hospital and University of Leeds looked at nearly 1,200 patients. Each had been admitted to a hospital in the UK for advanced bowel cancer and had undergone chemotherapy, which had failed to work.
All patients had then started a second chemotherapy treatment called irinotecan.
During the research, which was funded by Cancer Research UK, each participant was tested for the presence of a specific gene - RAS. If there were no faults identified in the gene, patients then received irinotecan and some were given a targeted cancer drug called panitumumab as well.
The team found that some patients responded well to the addition of panitumumab, but others didn't. Further studies were then conducted to try and determine why.
Samples were taken from the tumours of more than 320 of the trial patients and tested for two proteins – AREG and EREG – which are sometimes produced by cancer cells to encourage growth. Panitumumab targets and blocks these proteins, stopping the tumour from developing further.
The researchers found that patients who had high levels of these proteins, panitumumab was nearly twice as effective as just chemotherapy on its own. However, it was shown to not work at all in people who had low levels of these proteins.
Study author Dr Jenny Seligmann, Cancer Research UK clinical trial fellow from the University of Leeds, called the results promising and said the aim was is to now develop a fast and reliable test that measures the levels of the two key proteins.
She said research has developed new drugs to treat cancer in very specific ways, targeting individual rogue molecules in cancer cells.
"These drugs can be of enormous help to some patients, but not others – so as well as developing new treatments it is vital that we find the right way to select the best treatment for each individual patient. This will help patients to have more time with their loved ones, and to avoid the distress of going through ineffective treatment,” Dr Seligmann explained.
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