Scientists from Karolinska Institutet have suggested a new way of fighting colon cancer.
They focused their study on a group of signal proteins called EphB receptors.
These proteins stimulate the division of stem cells in the intestine and can contribute to the formation of adenoma (polyps), which are known to carry a risk of cancer.
But these same proteins also prevent the adenoma from growing unchecked and becoming cancerous.
The study, including an international research team led by Professor Jonas Frisen showed that EphB controls two separate signal pathways, one of which stimulates cell division and the other that curbs the cells' ability to become cancerous.
The scientists further identified a drug substance called imatinib, which can inhibit the first signal pathway without affecting the other, protective, pathway.
"Imatinib or a similar substance could possibly be used for preventing the development of cancer in people who are in the risk zone for colon cancer, instead of intestinal resection," said Maria Genander, one of the researchers involved in the study.
Imatinib has so far proved to inhibit cell division in intestinal tumor cells in vitro and in mice. The substance is a component of the drug Glivec, which is used, amongst other things, in the treatment of certain forms of leukaemia.
Whether it can also be used against adenoma and colon cancer in humans remains to be seen. The study is presented in the prestigious journal Cell.