Researching how polyps become cancer


Vanderbilt researchers are mapping the routes that benign polyps in the colon take to become colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer among both men and women in the United States.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University researchers received an $11 million Cancer Moonshot grant to fund this work, which gathers thousands of data points per cell for each study participant and then transforms the information into multidimensional geographic maps.

Vanderbilt is one of only five institutions designated a Pre-Cancer Atlas Research Center by the National Cancer Institute. The four others are leading similar efforts involving precancerous lesions of the skin, lung and breast.

The principal investigators leading the Colon Molecular Atlas Project (Colon MAP) are Robert Coffey, M.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and director of the Epithelial Biology Center at VUMC; Ken Lau, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology; and Martha Shrubsole, Ph.D., research professor of Medicine, Division of Epidemiology.

They are leading an effort to identify which people are at greatest risk for colon cancer, discover cell characteristics that could lead to chemo-prevention strategies and possibly recommend changes in screening and surveillance practices.

“We are indeed fortunate to receive this award; it places us among a small group of elite institutions, including Stanford, Harvard and Duke,” Coffey said.

Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016 authorizing $1.8 billion to fund the National Cancer Moonshot — a federal recommitment to curing cancer diseases and accelerating the pace of advancements. A 28-member blue ribbon panel set priorities, and the Colon MAP initiative follows through on several of them, including early cancer detection and enhanced data sharing. The members of the blue ribbon panel included Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., Executive Vice President for Research at VUMC, director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology.

Some patients undergoing colonoscopies or surgeries at VUMC will be asked to take part in Colon MAP. Patients recruited for the study will be between the ages of 40 and 75.

“We’re looking to recruit 1,800 people for Colon MAP,” Shrubsole said. “We will be collecting the precancerous lesions, but we also need samples from people without them to be able to compare the colon tissue between people who do and do not have polyps. Our comprehensive molecular epidemiologic design will allow us to answer many research questions about risk factors for progression and potential targets for new cancer screening and prevention strategies.”

This story by Tom Wilemon originally appeared in the VUMC Reporter.