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UTHSC Part of International Colorectal Cancer Study Renewed for Five Years with $10 Million for Innovative Research

Dr. David Shibata

A major international study of colorectal cancer called the ColoCare Study, which includes the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, has received a five-year renewal with $10 million from the National Institutes of Health to fuel new innovations in colorectal cancer treatment.

This next phase of the project will focus on developing new medical interventions based on earlier research findings from the ColoCare Study. It will also engage more patients in the research designed to yield insights into new tailored treatment approaches to critical unmet medical needs facing individuals with colorectal cancer.

Originally founded in 2009, the ColoCare Study brings together scientists and a diverse group of patients from several research institutions and geographic areas across the United States in addition to UTHSC: Huntsman Cancer Institute, Salt Lake City; Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle; Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa; and Washington University, St. Louis; and a site in Europe: University of Heidelberg in Germany. The goal is to better understand the unique factors that impact survival and quality of life outcomes among people with colorectal cancer.

The principal investigator at UTHSC is David Shibata, MD, professor and chair of the UTHSC Department of Surgery, executive director of the UTHSC Cancer Program and newly named executive director of UTHSC Oncology at Regional One Health.

“This is truly a unique research study that combines contributions of experts around the U. S. and the world, with the sole objective of conquering colorectal cancer,” Dr. Shibata said.

Colorectal cancers start in the colon or rectum. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancers account for 10% of the approximately 19 million new cancer cases diagnosed worldwide last year. In recent decades there have been major improvements in colorectal cancer survival. But alarmingly, trends in recent years show colorectal cancer incidence and mortality is on the rise in people under age 50 (early onset colorectal cancers.) Racial and socioeconomic disparities are prevalent among those most likely to die of the disease.

The ColoCare Study seeks to make a major impact in understanding how reduce suffering caused by colorectal cancers.

In its first five years, the study sites engaged more than 3,300 people diagnosed with colorectal cancers to participate in the research. The international network is a key feature of ColoCare, providing insights from diverse patients across a variety of geographic areas. The ColoCare Study has been the basis of innovative research in nutrition, exercise, medication use, diet, quality of life, blood and tumor markers, and the gut microbiome, among many others. “It is becoming increasingly apparent that not all colorectal cancers are the same and the ColoCare Study will help advance knowledge to further personalize treatments for patients,” Dr. Shibata said.

Other insights from the first phase of the study include new clues about the relationship between inflammation and patients most likely to experience significant quality-of-life side effects, like cancer-related fatigue. Another avenue explored how high levels of physical activity among colorectal cancer patients improved outcomes. Researchers also learned that while obesity and colorectal cancer are closely related, the particular location of the fatty tissues in the body—rather than a measure like body mass index—was far more useful in terms of predicting potential negative outcomes.

Recruiting more early-onset cancer patients is a principal focus area of the next five years of funding. The team will also work to better understand the unique needs of patients who live in rural areas and have limited access to health care, and patients who are part of diverse racial and ethnic groups, including those who are Hispanic or Black. The team will also continue to deliver insights using sophisticated techniques to understand how tumor biomarkers, meaning substances in the blood or tissue that can indicate characteristics of a tumor, can be used to inform outcomes. Patients provide key insights about risk factors for colorectal cancer outcomes, including health behaviors, dietary patterns, and more.

The ColoCare Study was launched at UTHSC in 2016 and currently is primarily recruiting patients at Regional One Health. “I am extremely grateful to the hundreds of patients in the Memphis community who have already participated, as well as to those future patients who will help us to make a significant difference in improving outcomes for individuals affected by this disease,” Dr. Shibata said.