ICRF Scientist Probes Link Between Inflammation, Colon Cancer

Chronic inflammation can increase the chances of colon cancer. Ruth Scherz-Shouval, PhD, an ICRF Project Grant recipient, discusses her research in this area and what she and her team aim to achieve.


Can you describe the relationship between chronic inflammation and colon cancer?

Ongoing inflammation causes constant irritation and wounding of the inflamed tissue. Our body responds to this by trying to heal the wound, and it does so by activating cells of our immune system, as well as fibroblasts – the cells that build the connective tissue in our body. Together these cells work to build new tissue to replace the injured one. When this process is repeated many times, the excessive activation of these cells creates a fertile soil for cancer cells to seed in.

Normal cells mutate into cancer cells by chance many times. Usually this is not enough to turn into a tumor, but combined with a fertile soil, the chances that this cancer cell will form a tumor increase.

Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD) are chronic inflammatory conditions in the colon, in which there are repeated episodes of inflammation and wounding of the colon. Since these are chronic, they increase the chances for one such mutated cancer cell to turn into colon cancer.

What are you aiming to achieve with your investigation?

Our ultimate goal is to guide the development of therapies for IBD patients at risk for colon cancer. To do so, we have to understand the molecular pathways leading from inflammation to cancer. Thankfully, not all IBD patients will develop cancer. We strive to understand in molecular terms why some inflammatory events lead to cancer while others do not.

Specifically, our goal is to understand how fibroblasts are activated and what changes they undergo in the process leading from IBD to colon cancer.

How is ICRF helping to accelerate your work?

In our previous research we discovered that molecular events that take place early during inflammation determine the course of disease and affect late stages of cancer. With the support of the ICRF, we will systematically dissect different stages of colon inflammation and cancer and in each step map which types of fibroblasts are activated and what changes they undergo. This will allow us to define prognostic markers and pinpoint factors that can serve as therapeutic targets.