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Gastrointestinal cancers

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancers affect the digestive system. Some are relatively common, such as bowel, stomach or oesophageal cancer, and others are much rarer, such as bile duct cancer.

Our scientists are working to:

  • identify the causes of GI cancers
  • develop tests to pick out those at higher risk
  • personalise treatments
  • confront drug resistance to help patients live longer

Our latest gastrointestinal cancer news

Meet our researchers

Our progress against gastrointestinal cancers

Genetics and targeted treatment

Our scientists are working to understand the genetics of GI cancers.  This will enable us to identify those who may be at increased risk of developing cancer or those who are likely to respond to certain targeted drugs.

For example, we developed a genetic test that looks at seven different genes to predict the likelihood of stomach or oesophageal cancer coming back after treatment.

We also discovered a genetic weakness in oesophageal cancer cells that makes them sensitive to a drug called ibrutinib. Our researchers are now trying to find out whether ibrutinib will work in oesophageal cancer patients who have tumours with mutations in a gene commonly linked to cancer, MYC, in a phase II clinical trial at our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden.

Our scientists also found that measuring the activity of immune-related genes in bile duct cancers could be a good indicator of whether the cancer is likely to return following surgery. 

At 32 years old, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Like too many young people who find themselves in this situation, my cancer was at an advanced stage when it was diagnosed.

- Cara Hoofe. Read Cara's story

Matching treatments to patients

We aim to personalise treatment and use our knowledge of cancer genetics to match treatments to patients.

We have developed blood tests, or ‘liquid biopsies’, to pick out people whose tumours are more likely to respond to specific drugs.

Recently, our scientists found that one of these simple and inexpensive blood tests could pick out patients with stomach or oesophageal cancer who are likely to benefit from targeted treatment with drugs, such as panitumumab, that block the EGFR gene. When mutated, the EGFR gene can drive abnormal cell growth - helping cancer grow and spread.

Tackling drug resistance

We are also working to target drug resistance, to keep cancer at bay for longer.

We are experimenting with targeted drug combinations that could prevent drug resistance. Recently, our researchers combined three different drugs to successfully block drug resistance in bowel cancers. Find out more about our bowel cancer research

Our scientists found that drugs that block a molecule known as Hsp90 could be a promising new type of therapy for bile duct cancer.

We have also identified a molecule known as MIR1249 as a potential drug target in bile duct cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy.

Helping patients

Our research into both common and rare GI cancers will continue to help patients such as Cara.

Cara Hoofe was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2016. She has the inherited condition Lynch syndrome, which means she had an 80% chance of developing bowel cancer and has a higher risk of developing womb and ovarian cancer. She said:

“At 32 years old, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Like too many young people who find themselves in this situation, my cancer was at an advanced stage when it was diagnosed, almost a year after I first raised my concerns with my GP.

“Over the three years that followed, I faced by far the most difficult physical and mental challenges of my life. I’ve undergone three major surgeries, countless minor procedures and over 20 cycles of chemotherapy.”

Support our work

Bowel cancer patients urgently need new treatment options. Your support will help bring us one step closer to more effective immunotherapy treatments and give these patients hope for the future. Please donate today to help us finish cancer.

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Latest news on gastrointestinal cancers

Meet our researchers

Dr Marco Gerlinger

Marco Gerlinger's research focuses on fighting drug resistance. He is also a Consultant Oncologist who treats patients with gastrointestinal cancers.

Dr Marco Gerlinger

Professor Chris Lord

Chris Lord is Deputy Director of Breast Cancer at the ICR and leads the gene function team, which aims to design novel ways to treat cancer.

Professor Chris Lord

Professor Richard Houlston

Richard Houlston's research focuses on genetic susceptibility to cancer. He is Head of the Division of Genetics and Epidemiology.

Professor Richard Houlston

Professor Nicola Valeri

Nicola Valeri leads the Gastrointestinal Cancer Biology and Genomics Team. His research focuses on therapeutic targets and novel biomarkers for gastrointestinal cancer.

Professor Nicola Valeri