Cancer Research UK has awarded researchers at the University of Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre £160,000 to investigate how non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs work against bowel cancer.

It is hoped that the research will help to identify novel therapies that could play a role in preventing this disease. Each year, there are around 36,000 new cases of bowel cancer and 16,000 deaths in the UK, making it the second most common cause of cancer death in the country, according to CR UK.

Although the majority of current clinical evidence indicates that aspirin and NSAIDs may have properties that help prevent the development of bowel cancer, this class of drugs’ cardiovascular and gastrointestinal side effects prevents them from being used long term. The team at Edinburgh, led by Dr Lesley Stark, aims to develop new therapies that work by mimicking aspirin’s effect on cancer cells, in the hope that they might be used in cancer prevention.

Cell suicide

Earlier studies conducted by the researchers, which also received financial backing from the charity, found that when bowel cancer cells are exposed to aspirin or similar NSAIDs, a protein called Re1A moves into the cell nucleus causing cell suicide. The primary aim of this research is to work out just how this process works, CR UK explained.

“We are trying to understand what is causing the cell to die when RelA enters the nucleus. This mechanism of action of NSAIDs is still unclear. Understanding how NSAIDs act against bowel cancer gives us the chance to identify other drugs that have a similar preventative effect," explained Dr Stark.

Drugs are not currently routinely used for preventing bowel cancer, although the launch of a national screening programme Scotland will help to identify the disease at an early stage, the charity said.