Ongoing Research Funded by DHF

Does Radiation Change Rectal Cancer Tumor DNA for Better Chance of Survival?

2023  | Disease: Colon and Rectal Cancer

Principal Researcher: David Escobar, MD, PhD


Principal Investigator: David Escobar, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology (Gastrointestinal Pathology), Northwestern Medicine, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine

The second leading cause of death in the U.S., colorectal cancer diagnoses have skyrocketed in recent years, especially in younger people in their 30s and 40s, for reasons that are still under investigation.  In 2023 over 153,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, with 30% of those diagnoses being rectal cancer. During the past 20 years, treatment for locally advanced rectal cancer has evolved from traditional chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, and then more chemotherapy, to a new standard of care known as total neoadjuvant chemoradiotherapy (TNT). This more personalized medicine strategy initially involves only chemotherapy and radiation. Many patients undergoing TNT do not need surgery—preserving crucial organs and normal function, as well as maintaining quality of life. Dr. David Escobar speculates that the radiation used in TNT uniquely sensitizes the tumors of these patients, leading to higher cancer cure rates without surgery in contrast to less successful, risker traditional therapy. This year’s grant from DHF will advance his team’s work investigating how radiation therapy may change the genetics of patients’ tumor cells by making the cells more responsive to cancer killing strategies like TNT. If this hypothesis proves to be true, further research could be launched, on strategies like immunotherapy, to help patients who still have residual cancer after TNT in avoiding colorectal surgery and the often serious, life-changing complications that come with it.

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