How Ashkenazim can aid cancer study

December 2, 2010

Scientists are hoping to use pioneering new technology to combat bowel cancer - a disease to which Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately vulnerable.

While the risk of contracting it is one in 20 in the general population, it is up to one in 10 among Ashkenazis.

For three years, a group has been researching the genetic profile of the disease by studying Ashkenazim DNA samples. Now they believe they can advance their knowledge through a technique known as next-generation sequencing, which involves studying the actual cancer itself.

Bowel cancer "causes more unavoidable deaths than any other cancer in Europe", says team member Professor Ian Tomlinson of Oxford University.

But bowel cancer can be successfully treated if caught early and a new national screening programme has been rolled out for the over-60s.

Dr Christina Thirlwell, of University College London, said: "Our genes are made up of DNA, which is a code that acquires errors when cancers grow, thus making cells in the body behave abnormally and become cancerous.

"New technology is available that can speed up our hunt for these errors and help us choose the best treatment for someone unfortunate enough to have developed bowel cancer."

She said progress had been made in finding genes which "are important in bowel cancer in the Jewish population. There are a few of these known already. We are working on the gene for a disease called 'hereditary mixed polyposis', which occurs only in Ashkenazim and is associated with developing polyps and cancers in the bowel. We know where the gene is. But it's like knowing what street it is on ­- now we need to find which house."

While the new sequencing technology has been used for other cancers, it has not been tried with bowel cancer.

Dr Thirlwell said the team planned to start by looking at 10 Jewish patients with bowel cancer. It needed to raise £100,000 in order to fund this initial investigation.

"More research needs to be undertaken in order to work out which are the most important genetic changes," she said. "The changes may not be the same in people of different backgrounds or ethnic origins."

The new technology, she explained, "means we can obtain a full genetic profile of each cancer in a few hours. Not long ago, this would have taken weeks or months.

"What the technology does is to find out all the changes in genes that have caused a cancer to grow. By finding out what these genetic changes are, we can say who has a better prognosis and we can say which cancers are most likely to respond to which treatment."

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Last updated: 4:06pm, December 2 2010