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Over the counter. An effective treatment for colorectal cancer may be already sitting in your medicine cabinet. Michael Wolfe, a MED professor of medicine and physiology and chief of Boston Medical Center’s gastroenterology section, recently found that ibuprofin — the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever (NSAID) marketed as Advil, Motrin, and Nuprin — may treat colorectal cancer.

Wolfe’s research team conducted experiments both in vitro, meaning in cell cultures, and in vivo, or in live animals. The researchers found that ibuprofin significantly inhibited cancer cell growth in both human and mouse colon cancer cells. They also found that mice with colorectal cancer who were fed small daily doses of ibuprofin had smaller tumors, less metastasis of cancer cells to the liver, and a greater chance of survival than mice not fed ibuprofin. Survival rates of mice getting ibuprofin were comparable to rates of those treated with the chemotherapeutic agent irinotecan, sold as Camptosar, and better than those of mice treated with the chemotherapy agent known as 5-fluorouracil. Ibuprofin also enhanced the action of irinotecan, doubling the survival rate for mice given both.

The effective dose of ibuprofin was quite small — for humans, the equivalent of about half an over-the-counter tablet, which is unlikely to have the serious side effects associated with NSAIDs, such as gastric ulcers.

According to Wolfe, ibuprofin therapy in conjunction with traditional chemotherapy may hold great promise for improving survival rates of people with colorectal cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Up to 50 percent of patients are not diagnosed until the cancer is at an incurable stage. Also significant is the possibility that ibuprofen might prevent the recurrence of colon polyps, which are precursors to cancer.

The research was presented at Digestive Disease Week, the annual conference of gastrointestinal professionals, in New Orleans this past May.

Noninvasive prenatal testing. Women with a family history of genetic diseases such as Down’s syndrome, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease, and thalassemia routinely are screened for the diseases during pregnancy. The most common tests have drawbacks. Amniocentesis, in which a sample of the amniotic fluid is analyzed, and chorionic villus sampling, in which a small sample of the placenta is analyzed, increase the risk of miscarriage. Moreover, maternal blood screens can provide evidence for a higher risk of genetic disease by detecting certain proteins, but cannot diagnose the presence of the disease itself.

A team led by Chunming Ding, an ENG research assistant professor at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology, recently developed a new noninvasive genetic test for beta-thalassemia. The genetic disease reduces the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen and primarily affects people of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, African, South and Southeast Asian, and Chinese descent.

Ding’s technique, developed with Rossa W. K. Chiu and Y. M. Dennis Lo at the University of Hong Kong, analyzes fetal DNA, which circulates in extremely small concentrations in a mother’s blood. It identifies single nucleotide polymorphisms, or DNA sequence variations caused by the alteration of a single nucleotide in a genome sequence, which indicate the presence of disease, in this case beta-thalassemia. Ding and his team call their analytic technique SABER (single allele base extension reaction). It is a variation of MassARRAY, the highly-automated genetic amplification and analysis system developed by Charles Cantor, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology.

The researchers expect to develop the system further to diagnose other gene disorders. They also intend to use it to quantify the amount of fetal DNA in maternal plasma, which can indicate the risk of pregancy complications such as preeclampsia and preterm labor. Additional applications include identifying in the blood stream DNA that indicates the presence of cancer, and detecting in the blood of an organ recipient the donor’s DNA, which is a sign of an unsuccessful transplant.

This research was published in the July 20 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
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