A recently discovered link between a common form of cancer and bowel disease is giving medical researchers insight into how to treat illness. Experimental animals with an analogue to human ulcerative colitis showed signs of reversal when given a drug called imatinib that has been used for some time to treat leukemia. The drug doesn’t directly repair damaged tissue, but it alleviates inflammation so that the colon can heal faster and more completely.
This treatment approach is based on the fact that a major contributing factor to the development of colitis—a chronic inflammatory bowel disease in which the colon is damaged and inflamed, leading to bleeding, cramping, pain, and weight loss—is a missing or malfunctioning gene whose primary function is tumor suppression. Many colitis patients go on to develop colorectal cancer. Imatinib supplies a substitute for the tumor suppressor gene, alleviating inflammation and helping lower cancer risk.
This is only the beginning of a line of investigation that could result in more effective treatment for colitis, or possibly even a full cure. That is particularly good news for people with one or more of the risk factors for colitis. The disease usually strikes people under age 30, but there’s no safe age and it can develop in patients who are over 60. Because colitis has a genetic component, people with a family history of the disease are more likely to develop it themselves. Certain acne medications also seem to be linked with colitis, though which ones and to what extent is not clear.
In addition to colon cancer, people with colitis are prone to developing kidney stones, osteoporosis, and sometimes fatal complications in the colon itself. These risks can be minimized with treatment, however. Current treatments include corticosteroids to reduce inflammation as well as other drugs that can help heal the colon. Immune suppressant medications are also sometimes prescribed for medication. In severe cases, surgery may be needed.