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Thursday October 5, 2000

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UA receives grant to research colon cancer treatment

By Emily Severson

Arizona Daily Wildcat

$17 million awarded for group study of medications

The Arizona Cancer Center received a $17 million grant to fund research for colon cancer, the largest grant the UA College of Medicine has received in the past five years.

The National Cancer Institute approved the grant, which will be used during the next five years to fund three related research projects for the Arizona Cancer Center on colon cancer prevention, said Laurie Young, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Cancer Center.

The research team is made up of scientists and physicians from six universities, but is headed by Dr. David Alberts, a University of Arizona professor of medicine.

"The UA will act as the coordinator or clearinghouse," Young said.

The projects will consist of studying people who have colon polyps, which are unidentified growths in the colon.

The two clinical trials involve more than 3,000 subjects that are residents of Tucson or Phoenix, said Alberts, the principal investigator for the research and director of the Arizona Cancer Center's prevention and control program.

One clinical trial focuses on the use of celecoxib and selenium and will probably start in December involving 1,600 people, Alberts said.

Celecoxib is the most commonly prescribed prescription drug for arthritis, but there is evidence that it might help prevent colon cancer as well, he added.

Selenium was used in a previous clinical trial on skin cancer.

"It was found not to prevent new skin cancer, but had profound effects on colon cancer," Alberts said. "It is the natural next step in colon cancer prevention research."

There is evidence that the combination of selenium and celecoxib might reduce the possible growth of cancer polyps, Alberts said.

The participants will be divided into four groups, with one group taking selenium while another takes celecoxib. One group will take a combination of both and the last group will take a placebo, he said.

After three years, a colonoscopy will be done on every participant to compare the results.

"We expect to reduce the reoccurrence rate of colon polyps by 30 percent," Alberts said.

One clinical trial began in 1996 and involves 12,070 people in Tucson and Phoenix. Half of the people are taking a pill containing ursodeoxycholic acid and the other half took a placebo.

The grant will enable the project to continue for another three years when a final colonoscopy will occur to determine whether the ursodeoxycholic acid prevented polyp reoccurrence.

Urosodeoxycholic acid is natural in small amounts in humans and it appears in high concentrations in animals that never get colon cancer, Alberts said.

"All three drugs are very safe, there is a huge database in ursodeoxycholic acid because it has been used on arthritis patients," Alberts said.

Project two will attempt to understand the mechanisms by which polyps occur. It is based on the hypothesis that tumor suppresser's can be chemically influenced by the environment and lifestyle exposure, Alberts said.

The research team will collaborate with MD Anderson Cancer Center of Houston to examine the polyp samples that were taken from the clinical trials.

Project three's main focus is to link environmental and genetic factors to determine the level of protection individual's may have because of their lifestyle, said Maria Martinez, the head of project three and a research assistant professor at the UA Prevention Center.

The project is a collaboration between the National Center for Toxicological Research and blood samples will be analyzed at the center in Little Rock, Ark.

The UA must re-apply for the grant every five years. The last grant the UA received, five years ago, was for $13.5 million to study the effects of wheat bran on colon cancer.

The cancer center received the grant in September and now has the infrastructure in place to begin the research, Young said.