A team of researchers has identified a new gene that is essential to colon cancer growth and found that inflammation in the external environment around the tumour can contribute to the growth of tumour cells.

The researchers, from Mount Sinai’s Tisch Cancer Institute, said that they have discovered that the environment around a colon cancer tumour can programme what is known as a “super-enhancer,” a complex area of DNA with a high concentration of transcriptional machinery that controls whether a cell is malignant.

This super-enhancer – the largest 1-2 per cent of all enhancers in the cell – regulates the gene PDZK1IP1, which was previously not identified as a cancer gene.

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Once researchers deleted PDZK1IP1, colon cancer growth slowed down, suggesting that PDZK1IP1 and its super-enhancer could be targets for anti-cancer therapies.

“In the US, colon cancer is the third most prevalent and second most deadly cancer,” said first author Royce Zhou from the institute.

“This cancer is reliant on surgery for treatment, and immunotherapies that have revolutionised the treatment of advanced cancer have only worked for a small subset of colon cancer patients. That’s why there’s a great need for novel target identification,” Zhou added.

This study, published in the journal Nature Communication, found that the super-enhancer is activated by surrounding inflammation in the tumour microenvironment.

The inflammation allows the cancer cells to survive in an environment they otherwise would not. Inflammatory bowel disease is a known risk for colon cancer; this finding could add to the understanding of the mechanism involved.