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Bowel cancer patients going undiagnosed due to COVID distruption

A new study led by the University of Oxford has found that since the first coronavirus lockdown the number of people diagnosed with bowel cancer in England has fallen sharply, with a deficit persisting up to October 2020.

Between April and October 2020, over 3,500 fewer patients than expected were diagnosed with bowel cancer in England. Since bowel cancer is more likely to be curable if it is detected at an early stage, these results suggest that many patients, whose diagnosis has yet to be made, may die unnecessarily. The results are published today in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

The research was carried out by a team of clinicians and academic researchers from across the UK, including from the University of Leeds and the University of Newcastle.

For this study, the researchers assessed the patterns of referral for bowel cancer investigation, diagnosis and treatment within the English NHS from 1 January 2019 to 31 October 2020.

The results showed that, compared with an average month in 2019, during April 2020 at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus:

  • the monthly number of referrals by GPs to hospital clinics for investigation of possible bowel cancer reduced by 63% (from 36,274 to 13,440);
  • the number of colonoscopies performed fell by 92% (from 46,441 to 3,484); and
  • the monthly number of people with confirmed bowel cancer referred for treatment fell by 22% (from 2,781 to 2,158), and the number of operations performed fell by 31% from (2,003 to 1,378).

This is the first study to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the diagnosis and management of bowel cancer across England.

Full story available on the Nuffield Department of Population Health website.

IL-22 pathway linked to poor prognosis in colon cancer

Research shows how IL-22 interacts with KRAS mutant tumours to promote excessive growth in colorectal cancer

The relationship between unexpected weight loss & cancer

New research will help GPs to identify the signs they should look for to swiftly diagnose cancer in people with unexpected weight loss

AI research discovers link between smell genes and colon cancer

Research from Dr Heba Sailem, recently published in Molecular Systems Biology, showed that patients with specific smell-sensing genes ‘turned on’ are more likely to have worse colon cancer outcomes.

Through the development of a machine-learning approach to analyse the perturbation of over 18,000 genes, Dr Sailem and her team found that olfactory receptor gene expression may have some effect on the way that colon cancer cells are structured.

Dr Sailem used layers of Artificial Intelligence (AI), including computer algorithms, to detect the changes of cancer cell appearance and organisation when the genes are turned down using siRNA technology. AI played a crucial part of this research, as it allowed for speed and efficient analysis and mapping of cell image data to various gene functions that were studied, which greatly increase the amount of information that can be extracted and reduced human error.

Dr Sailem surveyed over 18,000 genes and found that specific smell-sensing genes called olfactory receptor genes are strongly associated with how colon cancer cells spread and align with each other akin to the changes induced by turning down key colon cancer genes.

The practical patient implications of this research include how we might approach patients with colon cancer, depending on their genetic makeup. In the long run, Dr Sailem hopes that these findings will allow clinicians to survey patient genes, create specific predictions based on their genetics and create tailored treatments to best treat their cancer.

There is already a large body of research into the genes that influence the structure of cancer tissues, but studies such as this might help to find new target genes. For example, by reducing the expression of olfactory genes, we could potentially inhibit cancer cells from spreading and eventually invading other tissues which is the major cause of cancer death

About the Author

Dr Heba Sailem is a Sir Henry Wellcome Research Fellow at the Big Data Institute and Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford. Her research is focused on developing intelligent systems that help further biological discoveries in the field of cancer.

This paper is a result of three years of work, focusing on identifying the role of genetic expression on the spread and management of colon cancer.

Future research

Following this research Dr Sailem hopes to apply this AI approach to a wider range of cancer, to see what genes are associated with and influence cancer tissue structure, proliferation and motility.

For more information about this research, see Dr Heba Sailem’s paper here.