In Feb. 2000, President Clinton designated March National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. One month later, Katie Couric famously televised her colonoscopy on the Today show to promote screenings for colorectal cancer—the disease to which she had lost her husband Jay Monahan.
In the years since, Couric has consistently met the high bar she set for awareness-building. Among the journalist’s contributions are the establishment of the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, which she co-founded, along with The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
More recently in 2018, at Couric’s urging, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel followed her lead and underwent a colonoscopy on camera. She helped him with the prep work and joined him at his bedside after the procedure–continuing in her role as cheerleader.
Kimmel had turned 50 a few months prior, which happens to be the age at which the American Gastroenterological Association recommends the average patient begin colorectal cancer screenings. After that, it’s one colonoscopy after every ten years. So Couric’s pals—famous and not—can sometimes expect to hear some cajoling along with their birthday wishes.
“I was afraid,” said Kim, a friend who underwent a colonoscopy with Couric in 2011. “But I’m so thankful that I did it because I hate to think what could have happened.” During her procedure, Kim’s physician found and excised a tubular adenoma—a benign tumor that can become cancerous if it’s not removed.
Many patients share Kim’s reluctance. But however unpleasant they may be, colonoscopies are responsible for reducing two thirds of all deaths from colorectal cancer. Still, only 58 percent of Americans in the eligible age range are up-to-date on colonoscopy screening. And in 2017, approximately 135,430 people Americans were diagnosed with the disease; an estimated 50,260 will die from it.
It takes the average person 16 hours to prep for a colonoscopy, a process that clears your body of all fecal matter. Whole bowel irrigation with laxatives is arduous, so this blogger recommends you keep some quality reading material handy. Both the day before and the day of the procedure, it’s clear liquids only. The closest you’re allowed to get to actual food is chicken broth.
It reasons that more adults would undergo screenings—and many more lives would be saved—if screenings didn’t require a pre-procedure bout of serious diarrhea.
This is the hope of researchers who are searching for less invasive diagnostic tools with research involving animal models.
In a Feb. 2018 study, researchers identified two distinct strains of bacteria in cancerous colon tissue. Then, with mice, they showed how each triggers conditions that increase the likelihood of tumor development. The bacterial strains, they found, work together to promote cancer growth.
When both strains were introduced to rodents, tumors developed more quickly than they did in the group of control animals to which only one strain was introduced. The mice with two strains were also likelier to die.
An antibiotic could wipe out the bacteria, but it would likely also kill the good bacteria necessary for healthy digestion. Instead, the researchers hope their findings may lead to more research into a potential diagnostic tool that would gauge colorectal cancer risk by testing for the presence of the two bacterial strains. Such a test—which would require the patient to provide only a stool sample—could possibly replace colonoscopies as a mainstay in cancer screenings for at-risk patients.
Research with Mice and the Search for a Cure
More preclinical research with animals could lead to the adoption of new colon cancer screenings that require only simple stool samples. More importantly, it could lead to a cure for the disease, which remains the second deadliest cancer in the US.
Colorectal cancer is a complex disorder whose cause can be traced to the patient’s genetics and lifestyle as well as to various environmental factors. Rodents have been, and remain, a mainstay of research into the disease because of the biological similarities between humans and mice—especially as they pertain to the development and progression of colon cancer. This research has resulted in new, improved chemotherapy drugs; the introduction of effective diagnostic tools; and an improved understanding of the causes and risk factors associated with the disease.
The National Cancer Institute lists 26 drugs and 8 drug combinations that are currently used to treat colorectal cancer. Research with rodent models is responsible for the discovery of many new and more effective medications. It improves the drugs by refining dosages and determining the most effective regimens. And, of course, animal studies are required for approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It pays off, too: Scientists say new and improved chemotherapy and radiation therapy drugs have reduced the rates of colorectal cancer recurrence and prolonged patient survival.
A 2016 literature review on the inclusion of rodents in colorectal cancer research is titled: “From Mice to Men”; another, from 2006: “The Mighty Mouse”. As researchers concluded in a 2015 study: “The animal models have become the pillars for understanding the pathogenesis and for developing newer chemotherapeutic drugs.”
A cure for colorectal cancer, and the discovery of new treatments to mitigate the disease’s devastating impact, will rely on research with mice. Meanwhile, eligible and at-risk patients may have available in the near future an easier and less-invasive testing process. Until then, if you are aged 50 or older, or have a family history of the disease, be sure to stay up-to-date. Why not follow Katie Couric’s lead and schedule your colonoscopy. While only a few days remain in March, it’s always a good time to take a step towards prevention.
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