Specific type of inflammation may be linked to risk of colorectal cancer


LONDON, ON – In a new preclinical study published in the journal Gastroenterology, researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University have found that a specific type of inflammation may be associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer in Canada and one of the leading causes of cancer death. One of the major risk factors is inflammation caused by illnesses like colitis, Crohn’s disease or other forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Previous studies have shown that the degree of inflammation caused by colitis is an important indicator of the risk of a patient developing colorectal cancer. In this study, researchers from Lawson and Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry studied six different types of colitis – which result in different forms of inflammation – to assess whether certain types were associated with a higher risk of cancer.

“We found it wasn't necessarily the severity and duration of the inflammation that was most important, but rather the type of inflammation,” says Dr. Samuel Asfaha, a Lawson Scientist, Gastroenterologist at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) and Associate Professor at Schulich.

Dr. Samuel Asfaha

The team found that only one type of colitis led to cancer in preclinical models. They identified a new subset of immune cells called macrophages that were critical to the development of cancer. They also found that if they blocked these specific immune cells, they could prevent colitis-associated cancer.

“To our knowledge this is the first published study that extensively compares the different models of colitis or inflammation in the colon,” says Dr. Alice Shin, lead author on the study, which she worked on as PhD student at Schulich. “We are also the first to show that this specialized subset of macrophages that we identified are important for the initiation phase of inflammation-associated cancer.”

The role of macrophages in in colitis-associated cancer (Source: Gastroenterology)
The role of macrophages in in colitis-associated cancer (Credit: Gastroenterology)

The next steps are to understand what the macrophages are doing to initiate cancer and whether a biomarker could be found that would identify which patients with chronic inflammation are at higher risk of developing cancer. 

“Patients who have chronic inflammation often must undergo annual cancer surveillance,” Dr. Asfaha says. “By being able to differentiate those who are most at risk for developing cancer versus those who are who are at lower risk, we can focus our attention on those who are at increased risk.”

There is hope that further study could also lead to an understanding of whether certain treatments are more effective for colitis-associated cancer as opposed to other non-hereditary (sporadic) colorectal cancers.

About Lawson Health Research Institute

Lawson Health Research Institute is one of Canada’s top hospital-based research institutes, tackling the most pressing challenges in health care. As the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London, our innovation happens where care is delivered. Lawson research teams are at the leading-edge of science with the goal of improving health and the delivery of care for patients. Working in partnership with Western University, our researchers are encouraged to pursue their curiosity, collaborate often and share their discoveries widely. Research conducted through Lawson makes a difference in the lives of patients, families and communities around the world. To learn more, visit www.lawsonresearch.ca.

About Western

Western delivers an academic experience second to none. Since 1878, The Western Experience has combined academic excellence with life-long opportunities for intellectual, social and cultural growth in order to better serve our communities. Our research excellence expands knowledge and drives discovery with real-world application. Western attracts individuals with a broad worldview, seeking to study, influence and lead in the international community.

About The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University is one of Canada’s preeminent medical and dental schools. Established in 1881, it was one of the founding schools of Western University and is known for being the birthplace of family medicine in Canada. For more than 130 years, the School has demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence and a passion for scientific discovery. 

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