Colon Cancer Researcher Wins Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

More people have been surviving or avoiding colon cancer over the past few decades, largely because more people are getting recommended screening tests. Guidelines give doctors and patients information about which tests to get, how often to repeat them, and what age to start. These guidelines are based on research.

Recently, a researcher who made many of the groundbreaking discoveries that led to current colon cancer screening guidelines was honored by a new prestigious award. Bert Vogelstein, MD, of the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center is among 11 winners of the first-ever Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Each was awarded $3 million, more than double the amount of the Nobel Prize. Most of the scientists were recognized for research on genetic changes during cell growth that can lead to cancer.

The award was established by 4 technology leaders including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The group’s stated goal is to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life.

Discovering the genetics of colon cancer

Vogelstein is one of 7 Breakthrough Prize recipients who received grants from the American Cancer Society earlier in their careers. In 1993, Vogelstein led one of 2 teams that independently discovered the first gene that causes colon cancer when mutated. When changes occur to the gene, it allows colon cells to grow and change rapidly, ultimately leading to colon cancer.

Vogelstein was also among scientists who discovered another genetic change—one that is involved in 15% of all colon cancer associated with a family history, and as much as 60% of all colon cancer cases. And he discovered a third gene involved in colon cancer development.

These discoveries have led to advances in the prevention and early detection of colon cancer. For example, people with a strong family history of colon cancer can be tested to see if they carry one of the mutated genes. If they do, they can lessen their risk of developing the disease by making changes in their diet and lifestyle. People with one of these gene mutations are also counseled to start colon screening with colonoscopy at a younger age.

Prevention and early detection of colon cancer

The American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screening for most people starting at age 50. People with a family history of the disease or other risk factors should talk with their doctor about beginning screening when younger. Screening can sometimes find growths called polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. And if cancer is present, it can be found earlier, when it’s easier to treat.

Diet, weight, and exercise all affect your risk for colon cancer. You can help lower your risk by eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and less red meat (beef, lamb, or pork) and less processed meat (hot dogs and some luncheon meat). Men should limit alcohol to no more than 2 drinks a day, and women to no more than 1 drink a day.

You can also help lower your risk for colon cancer by getting more exercise and staying at a healthy weight. Smoking also increases the risk, so if you smoke, try to quit.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
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