Bowel cancer can categorised into four distinct diseases, each with its own set of biological characteristics, a major international study, funded by the UK’s The Institute of Cancer Research in London and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, has found.

Scientists at the ICR, alongside those at research institutes in the US and Europe, put together the world’s largest set of data on bowel cancer from 3,443 patients, and found that 87% of cases can be classified into four groups.

Tumours within the four ‘consensus molecular subtypes’, or CMSs, each had a similar genetic profile that could enhance or decrease their susceptibility to treatment. 

It was found that patients with one particular type - CMS4 - were often diagnosed late, had high levels of metastases, and had significantly worse survival rates than the other types, while those with CMS2 types had much better survival rates even if the cancer had relapsed.

The researchers are hoping that their findings - which have been published in the journal Nature Medicine - will be used to help identify patients at risk of developing more serious, fast-growing disease that requires more intensive treatment to boost outcomes.

“Ultimately, it could lead to development of new molecular diagnostic tests to diagnose patients by their particular type of bowel cancer, and give them the most effective treatments for that type,” said study co-leader Anguraj Sadanandam, Team Leader in Precision Cancer Medicine at the ICR.