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Colon and Rectal Cancer Research Highlights

For more than 65 years, the American Cancer Society has been helping find answers to critical questions about colon/rectal cancer (sometimes called colorectal cancer, and often referred to simply as colon cancer) – what causes it, how can it be prevented, detected, and treated successfully, and how colon cancer patients’ quality of life can be improved.

These efforts have contributed to substantial decreases in colon and rectal cancer mortality over the past two decades. Despite this progress, colorectal cancer is still the third-deadliest cancer in the U.S., and the Society is committed to saving more lives from this lethal disease.

From ACS Researchers

The American Cancer Society employs a staff of full-time researchers who relentlessly pursue the answers that help us understand how to prevent, detect, and treat cancer, including colorectal cancer.

Society epidemiologists Rebecca Siegel, MPH, and Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD, every three years publish Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures, which provides detailed analyses of colon and rectal cancer incidence and mortality trends in the U.S., as well as the latest information on risk factors, early detection, treatment, and current research.

Highlights from  Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2014-2016 include:

  • In 2014, an estimated 137,000 people were diagnosed with colon/rectal cancer in the U.S., and about 50,000 people died of the disease.
  • In both men and women, colon/rectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death.
  • While large declines in colon/rectal cancer incidence and death rates in the past decade have been attributed to increased colonoscopy use, only 59% of people aged 50 or older, for whom screening is recommended, report being consistent with colorectal cancer screening guidelines according to the National Health Interview Survey.


The report concludes that significant progress in the prevention and early detection of colorectal cancer is possible by increasing access to and utilization of colorectal cancer screening tests.

The Society’s internal research team is also:

  • Analyzing data on an ongoing basis from Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II), which ACS began in 1982, to continue to investigate linkages between lifestyle and colon/rectal cancer.
  • Conducting a new multi-year cancer prevention study, CPS-3, to better understand ways to prevent cancer, including colorectal cancer.


Get the latest colon cancer research news >

ACS-Funded Research and Training Grants in Colorectal Cancer*

The Society also supports an Extramural Grants program that funds individual investigators engaged in cancer research or training at medical schools, universities, research institutes and hospitals throughout the U.S. Following rigorous and independent peer review, the most innovative research projects are selected for support.

Total ACS grants currently in effect addressing colorectal cancer: 100
Total ACS grant funding currently committed to colorectal cancer: $32,074,455

Spotlight on grantees: The following are some of the investigators currently being funded by the American Cancer Society who are working to find the answers that will save more lives and better prevent, treat, and manage colorectal cancer.  

Prevention and Early Detection

Jennifer WeissJennifer Weiss, MD, at the University of Wisconsin, is conducting research to inform the creation of a toolkit that will help healthcare systems nationwide increase their colorectal cancer screening rates.




Connie ArnoldConnie Arnold, PhD, at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, is testing different health literacy interventions to increase colorectal cancer screening among low-income and underinsured populations.




Charles BaschCharles Basch, PhD, at Columbia University Health Sciences Center in New York is leading a study to determine whether in hard-to-reach, low-income, minority populations it is more effective to educate individuals directly via phone about colorectal cancer screening or to reach out in person to primary care physicians.



test tubes with writing Justin E. Wilson, PhD, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is investigating whether a specific gene, called NLPR12, helps protects against colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease) and colitis-associated colon/rectal cancer. Research in mice has shown that those lacking this gene are highly susceptible to colitis and colon/rectal cancer. Wilson’s own research in mice suggests that NLPR12 helps shut down certain cellular processes involved in inflammation. He is conducting additional studies to determine exactly how NLPR12 affects the risk for colitis-associated colorectal cancer. Wilson is also studying whether a lack of NLPR12 affects the community of gut bacteria in such a way that it promotes colitis-associated colorectal cancer.

close up of test tubes Lisa Tussing-Humphreys, PhD, at the University of Illinois, is studying the connection between obesity and colon/rectal cancer, and specifically, why obesity increases the risk of this disease. Tussing-Humphreys notes that obesity, especially in women, is associated with changes to the way the body metabolizes iron, which in turn leads to inflammation in the colon. She is investigating whether this chain of events is a reason that obesity increases colorectal cancer risk. To do this, Tussing-Humphreys will examine the effect of two diets designed to reduce intestinal iron exposure versus a control diet in obese women. She hopes her research will uncover whether modifying iron intake could help reduce the risk of cancer among those who are obese.


Karen GuilleminAllison V. Banse, PhD, at the University of Oregon, is studying how gut bacteria influences the rate of cell turnover in the lining of the gut, a process which goes awry in colorectal cancers. Banse wants to identify which individual members of the gut bacteria community are able to modulate cell proliferation to better understand how microbial signals contribute to colorectal cancer. She hopes her work will lead to new colorectal cancer treatments such as probiotics.


close up of dropperMark R. Frey, PhD, at The Saban Institute, is studying the molecular changes that drive tumor formation in order to inform the development of new effective targets for colorectal cancer detection and therapy. Specifically, Frey is exploring the possibility that a protein called ErbB4 stimulates the growth and metastasis of colon cancer cells.



Allred Clinton Clinton Allred, PhD, at Texas A&M University, is researching the role of estrogen in the suppression of colon tumor formation. Allred is also studying dietary compounds that act like estrogen, called phytoestrogens, which may lead to the development of recommendations that will enable patients to alter their diet in an effort to reduce risk of colon cancer.



 *Information current as of March 1, 2015.

Other Ways ACS Fights Colorectal Cancer

In addition to conducting and funding colorectal cancer research, the American Cancer Society helps fight colorectal cancer through education, support services, and advocacy. Explore how the Society helps>