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Football hero’s legacy spurs on decline of bowel cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

31 March 2003

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By 2020, Britain will see the sharpest fall in deaths from bowel cancer in its history, Cancer Research UK experts will tell a press conference today.

Leading bowel cancer specialists will tell the conference that the introduction of screening and improved treatment of bowel cancer, could save thousands of lives every year.

The news coincides with the start of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and the tenth anniversary of the Bobby Moore Fund. The Fund has supported work that looks into ways of preventing and treating the disease since the 1966 World Cup winning captain’s death a decade ago from bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in men and women in the UK, yet eighty per cent of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully if caught at an early stage.

Dr Wendy Atkin, deputy director of the Cancer Research UK Colorectal Unit at St Mark’s Hospital, says: “Once bowel screening is made available, deaths from the disease will become less common and the disease will be more treatable. Currently only 40 per cent of patients survive for more than five years.”

The government is currently considering two screening options – Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) and Flexible Sigmoidoscopy (Flexi-Scope).

Dr Lara Lipton is one of the Bobby Moore Fellows who received funding during the last decade. Her research is focusing on genes that increase bowel cancer risk.

Dr Lipton’s research identified the role of a gene that heightens peoples’ risk of a certain type of bowel cancer. In her study she found that a gene called MYH increases the risk of multiple bowel growths and bowel cancer. The results of the study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine1 in February 2003.

Up to 10 per cent of bowel cancers are due to hereditary factors – making genetic screening another viable method for early detection of the disease. Dr Lipton’s research may provide one of the genes targeted by genetic screening in the future.

Professor John Northover, director of the Cancer Research UK Colorectal Unit at St Mark’s Hospital and one of the UK’s top bowel surgeons says: “The biggest step forward in the next decade is likely to be screening – as a result we will see the number of people dying from this disease fall dramatically.

“Research at the molecular level should also provide us with powerful ‘finger-printing’ tools. These will help us predict more precisely the behaviour of individual tumours.

“This will allow us to do smaller operations without chemotherapy or radiotherapy for the early, ‘low aggression’ tumours, while precisely targeting increasingly powerful drugs at the more ‘high aggression’ tumours.”

The disease is most common in people over the age of 50, although younger people can still suffer from the disease. The symptoms of bowel cancer often go unrecognised and the cancer progresses to an advanced stage if untreated.

Awareness of bowel cancer has increased over the last decade, which has helped reduce the stigma attached to the disease.

Bowel cancer develops as a result of damage to genes within cells lining the bowel. It is not known precisely what causes this, but hereditary factors and diet make this damage more likely to occur. These are both key targets for research.

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Information at Cancer Research UK says: “Bowel cancer is preventable. We expect that the introduction of an effective screening programme for bowel cancer will cause similar results to when the screening programmes were launched for breast and cervical cancer – early detection, early improved treatment and fewer deaths.”


  1. New England Journal of Medicine348 (9)