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Early cancer screening


A EUREKA funded project is making real progress in the fight against cancer of the large intestine. One of the three most common cancer types in western countries, cancer of the large intestine is also one of the hardest to diagnose. In 50 per cent of cases it is detected too late to be successfully treated with surgery. But EUREKA project GENEFEC has developed a new test which could save thousands of lives by detecting early signs of the disease.

The new DNA-based test, developed by Norwegian company Nordiag and Berlin-based biotechnology firm Invitek GmbH, aims to identify patients with curable pre-cancerous cells in the colon, rectum and pancreas.

“There are a million new cases of colorectal cancer each year, causing around 450,000 deaths,” says Dr Dagfinn Ogreid of the Norsk Center for Gastro-Intestinal Cancerdiagnostikk. “If our test saves just 20% of these patients - and it could be as high as 50% - that’s a lot of lives saved.”

Doctors working in this area have relied upon invasive, time-consuming and painful endoscopic techniques to screen patients. The non-invasive alternative is faecal blood tests, but these tests are not traditionally cancer-specific and have successful detection rates as low as two per cent. Up to 98 per cent of patients are shown to have completely different conditions.

But GENEFEC’s Norwegian and German partners have used a gene which is known to spontaneously mutate in a cell of the gut lining up to five years before the cell becomes malignant, to form the basis of a new and improved faecal test. Nordiag’s Dr Oegreid has developed a method of detecting this mutation using the polymerase chain reaction technique to magnify fragments of DNA shed in the patient’s faeces.

The new test, which takes less than two hours, has attracted interest around the world and is now used by Norway’s public health service. “We have plans to open a laboratory in Berlin with our German partners,” says Dr Ogreid. “This will be an opportunity not only to get into the diagnostic market, but also to work towards our second goal: the robotisation of the tests, which will make the technique even quicker and more reliable.”

The test has enormous market potential. With a population of 4.5 million, Norway has about 4,000 new cases of colorectal cancer every year. There is a market for 20,000 tests a year in Norway alone if doctors screen everyone with a family history of the disease. This figure could rise to over 600,000 if everyone over 40 years old – the highest risk category – is screened. And its impact will of course be widened greatly if it is made available across Europe.

The two partners initially began working on similar technology independently. But when Nordiag scientists became aware that the German group was developing a similar method, it became clear that they could reach their goal faster by pooling their expertise. Dr Oegreid says EUREKA support has been vital to getting the project off the ground. “EUREKA opened doors that allowed us to obtain private sponsorship from insurance companies to fund our research.”

Nicola Vatthauer | alfa
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