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Vol 38  No 17
July 20, 2006


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Productivity high in colorectal cancer research project

By Sharon Gray

Drs. Elizabeth Dicks and John McLaughlin.
(Photo by HSIMS)

The sign outside the door says “Let’s Talk About My Butt.”

Inside, Dr. Elizabeth Dicks is eager to talk about butts and the problem of colorectal cancer in Newfoundland and Labrador. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in Canada, and the rates of colorectal cancer in this province are 27 per cent higher than the national average.

“We’re talking about 127 cases for every 100,000 people, compared to a Canadian average of 100 cases for 100,000 people,” she said from her first-floor office in the Faculty of Medicine.

Since 2001 she has played a key role with the Colorectal Cancer Interdisciplinary Health Research Team, recently funded for a second five-year term by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). She’s been the nurse co-ordinator of the Newfoundland section of the project and her job has included working with many of the families who have a hereditary form of colorectal cancer.

Now that she’s finished her PhD, Dr. Dicks is taking on a new role with the project.

“I’ve asked Betty (Dicks) to be the managing director for the whole team in both provinces,” said Dr. John McLaughlin, epidemiologist and team leader, based at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto. “She’ll continue in her co-ordinating function at Memorial University but also serve in a more direct co-ordinating role for Ontario as well. With her appointment as a clinical scientist at Memorial she’ll really be able to help lead the science and the research.”

Dr. McLaughlin and other researchers and students from Ontario were in St. John’s June 20-21 to meet with team members at Memorial for the annual general meeting. He said the project has already accomplished a great deal in Newfoundland and Labrador, with researchers active in all areas of the province. Funding from the first phase of the project helped establish the Newfoundland and Labrador Familial Colorectal Cancer Registry, which collects information about newly diagnosed cancers including family health data, personal health data and biological specimens of tumour tissue and blood.

“In the first five years of the project we created this provincial familial cancer registry and we were also able to publish 31 scientific papers, which is very good productivity,” said Dr. McLaughlin. “In this next phase we will continue this productivity, but it is also my hope that we will really begin to see our work have an impact on the health in the population. That is very important because the colorectal cancer rates are so high in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Dr. Dicks explained that researchers are involved in a wide variety of studies in many disciplines to understand why colorectal cancer rates are going up. The research focuses in particular on people at high risk of colorectal cancer who can be identified through molecular testing or family history. The goal is to get these people into screening programs which will remove polyps before they are cancerous.

Because there is often anxiety about the testing and the subsequent screening techniques, Dr. Christine Way, Nursing, has developed a method to monitor the psychosocial and behavioural impact of genetic tests for hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, the most common form of hereditary colorectal cancer. Dr. McLaughlin said studies like Dr. Way’s are all part of the goal to make better information on colorectal cancer available to more people. “By helping people to understand the role that genetics can play in this disease, we can work towards improving screening, plus better and more standardized clinical care.”

Having a familial cancer registry is valuable for Newfoundland and Labrador because it is a “great resource for researchers,” noted Dr. Dicks. “We’ve joined the co-operative family registry in the U.S. so we can add power with more numbers. Because of our genetics, many people are interested in studying our population. It’s a ripple effect — we started small with just our own little cancer registry and now it’s recognized as a valuable tool for researchers around the world.”

There are currently 42 investigators involved in the Colorectal Cancer Research project, based mainly in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador. There are 14 researchers at Memorial plus lead investigators and management committee members Drs. Patrick Parfrey and Ban Younghusband of the Faculty of Medicine.

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