10 Dec 2009

Scientists aim to develop “early warning system” for bowel cancer

Scientists have announced plans to develop a simple urine test that could tell people they are at increased risk of bowel cancer.

The researchers at The Open University, whose two-year project will be funded by World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), hope the test will enable them to detect DNA damage in urine using an inexpensive and convenient method.

The team has previously shown that it is possible to detect DNA damage to the cells lining the colon in healthy people who have a lot of red meat in their diet via a blood test. They will now try to detect the damage by testing urine.

This is potentially important for cancer prevention because people with this type of DNA damage could be at increased risk of bowel cancer. The researchers hope that it might lead to the development of a test that could identify people at high risk. Currently scientists are at the stage of finding out if the technology works so this application is still a distant possibility.

Previous research established convincing evidence that red meat increases risk of bowel cancer, which is why WCRF recommends people limit consumption to 500g (cooked weight) per week.

Dr Maria Velasco-Garcia, the lead researcher, said: “We have already observed that red meat causes DNA damage to the cells that line the colon and we have developed methods of measuring this damage.

“But the next step is to test this in healthy people eating high meat diets to see how well we can detect the DNA damage just by examining urine and whether we can do this in a way that can test a large number of samples without the need for highly trained analysts.

“This is important because while this project is at the very early stages, it is possible that it could eventually be used widely to identify people at high risk. For this to be the case, testing would need to be fast, cost-effective and easy to perform.

“The reason we want to be able to test urine samples rather than blood is because giving a urine sample is something a person could do themselves. But it is important to emphasise that we are still at the very early stages of development.”

Dr Panagiota Mitrou, Science Programme Manager for WCRF, said: “There is already convincing evidence that eating red meat increases risk of cancer, but this study is exciting because it offers the potential for an early warning system to single out people who are at particularly high risk.

“It raises the possibility that at some point in the future we may be able to identify people with this type of DNA damage.

“This means that if the researchers are successful, this test could one day come to play an important role in preventing future cases of the disease.”


For more information contact Gemma Bessant at the OU on 01908 655596 / or Richard Evans at the WCRF on 020 7343 4253 /

Notes to editors

There is convincing evidence that being overweight and eating red and processed meat increases risk of bowel cancer. For alcohol, the evidence that it increases risk is convincing in men and probable in women.

There is convincing evidence that being regularly physically active reduces risk of bowel cancer.

There is also evidence that eating foods containing dietary fibre probably reduces risk.

Scientists estimate about 16,000 (or 43 per cent) of the 37,500 bowel cancer cases in the UK every year could be prevented by healthy eating, physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight.

About WCRF

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) raises awareness that cancer is largely preventable and helps people make choices to reduce their chances of developing the disease.

This includes funding scientific research into how cancer risk is related to diet, physical activity, and weight management, and education programmes that highlight the fact that about a third of the most common cancers could be prevented through changes to lifestyle. For more information on the charity’s work, visit

The WCRF report, called Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, was launched in November 2007 and is the most comprehensive report ever published on the link between cancer and lifestyle. For more information, visit

About research at The Open University

The Open University climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions. Results showed that more than 50% of the University’s research is internationally excellent (3*), with a significant proportion world-leading (4*).

There has been a 75% growth in competitively awarded research income at the OU over the last five years - a robust measure of our increasing research excellence.

The Open University is the UK’s largest university and the world leader in distance education, and is this year celebrating its 40th anniversary. It has more than 200,000 students in over 40 countries. Of these, more than 1,100 are postgraduate research students.

The latest edition of The Open University’s Research Highlights brochure can be downloaded from:

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