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New research reveals link between colon cancer and a protein used in healthy functioning

The protein, called NPM1, is involved in many important functions in a healthy body, but may also contribute to colon cancer growth and treatment resistance.
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​March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Colon cancer is a disease that will affect one in 16 women and one in 14 men in B.C. Research published earlier this year by Dr. Isabella Tai, senior scientist at the BC Cancer Research Institute, has illustrated how a protein called NPM1 is involved in colorectal cancer growth and treatment resistance. 

“Across Canada, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and the third in women,” says Dr. Tai. “Improving outcomes for patients requires better knowledge of the disease and using that knowledge to develop new ways to treat it. The results of this study provide a potential new target of study for clinical research and ultimately, hopefully, will lead to a new and improved treatment options for people with colorectal cancer.” 

The study, published in Cancer Biology & Therapy, found that tissue samples that had a higher concentration of NPM1 were associated with a higher mortality rate in the patients the sample came from. The concentration was particularly high in samples from patients with late-stage colorectal cancers, indicating that NPM1 plays a role in the cancer progression; a learning that suggests NPM1 may be an effective target for future treatment options. When Dr. Tai and team modified the NPM1 protein in the lab, they were able to prove this theory. 

Dr. Isabella Tai, senior scientist, Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at BC Cancer

“When we blocked NPM1 activity, the cancer cells were easier to kill. When we ‘turned off’ the NPM1 gene, it made the cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy,” says Dr. Tai. “We also examined NPM1’s activity and relationship with other proteins and found that NPM1 works in concert with another protein, called Akt. When we stopped both NPM1 and Akt, we found tumours grew more slowly and were smaller. When we increased NPM1, it led to faster and larger growing tumours.”

According to Dr. Tai, she and her team are the only ones studying the implications of NPM1 in colon cancer, a disease that will claim the lives of 1 in every 37 women and 1 in every 33 men in B.C. She hopes that this breakthrough will provide the clinical research community a new potential target for analysis that could ultimately lead to improved treatment options and improved outcomes for one of B.C’s most deadly cancers. 

To learn more about colon cancer, including the importance of screening and early detection, read Colon Cancer Awareness Month: Early detection is key or visit the colon cancer screening page at  

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