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    Why are more young adults getting colorectal cancer? Researcher is trying to find out
    • March 13, 2024

    As a rising number of young adults get colorectal cancer before they turn 50, researchers are trying to find out what’s behind the alarming jump in this early-onset cancer.

    Colorectal cancer is now the leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths in men under 50 and the number two cause among women of the same age, according to the American Cancer Society. The early-onset colorectal cancer rates are increasing by 1% to 2% each year, but the rise remains a mystery.

    Now, a Mass General researcher is leading a team to investigate the rapid jump in young adult cases of colorectal cancer, a disease in which cells in the colon or rectum grow out of control.

    Andrew Chan, the director of epidemiology for the Mass General Cancer Center, is co-leading the global team known as PROSPECT — which received a grant of up to $25 million over five years to study early-onset colorectal cancer. The research team is looking to understand the pathways, risk factors and molecules involved in the cancer’s development.

    “Research suggests that this risk is increasing with each new generation,” said Chan, a gastroenterologist focused on cancer prevention among families at high risk of gastrointestinal cancer, “And is likely linked to exposures in early life and throughout an individual’s lifetime that are specific to their birth cohort.”

    The research team has uncovered contributing causes to this rise in early-onset cases, including: overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, poor diet, and alterations in the gut microbiome.

    “Despite this progress, these factors do not completely explain the rapid rise in cases, and many unanswered questions remain about the mechanisms responsible for the rise in cases,” Chan said.

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    The team will try to identify the risk factors associated with early-onset colorectal cancer, as well as develop prevention strategies.

    “Uncovering the causes of the rising incidence of early-onset colorectal cancer around the globe is a one of the highest priorities in the field,” Chan said.

    “This work will offer opportunities for preventive interventions that can benefit younger generations,” Chan added. “In addition to colorectal cancer, there is a rising incidence of multiple cancer types in young adults. The research can serve as a model for the study of other early-onset cancers.”

    The research team includes 11 investigators from nine institutions in five countries, including: Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, MIT, Broad Institute, and King’s College London.

    Meanwhile, the widow of the late actor Chadwick Boseman — who died from colorectal cancer when he was 43 — recently visited Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as part of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

    Simone Ledward-Boseman was the keynote speaker at the 5th Annual Patient and Family Forum at the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.

    “Colorectal cancer is killing young people across the country, and most are vastly underestimating their risk,” Ledward-Boseman said. “I’ve seen how this disease moves, and I know now how treatable it is when it’s detected early… Spreading awareness will save lives.”

    The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.

    People at increased or high risk of colorectal cancer might need to start colorectal cancer screening before age 45. This includes people with: a family history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps; a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease; or a genetic syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer.

    ​ Orange County Register