Public Release:  'Addicted' cells provide early cancer diagnosis

Norwich BioScience Institutes

Scientists at the Institute of Food Research have detected subtle changes that may make the bowel more vulnerable to the development of tumours.

With support from the Food Standards Agency and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council they are investigating whether diet could control these changes and delay or reverse the onset of cancer.

"We looked at changes in 18 genes that play a role in the very earliest stages of colorectal cancer," says Professor Ian Johnson at the Institute of Food Research.

"We detected clear chemical differences in these genes in otherwise normal tissue in cancer patients.

"This represents a new way to identify defects that could eventually lead to cancer."

All cells carry a complete set of instructions for the whole organism in their nuclear DNA, but to define the specialised structure and functions of each particular cell type, genes must be switched on or firmly off, over the course of the cell's life-cycle.

One of the mechanisms controlling the activities of the genes in a cell is the "epigenetic code", a set of chemical tags attached to the DNA molecule, marking individual genes for expression, or for silence. It is well known that the abnormal behaviour of cancer cells is partly due to mistakes in this epigenetic code, some of which switch on genes for growth, whilst others switch off genes that would otherwise cause abnormal cells to destroy themselves.

Scientists at IFR are exploring the possibility that such mistakes in the epigenetic code may begin to occur in apparently normal tissues, long before the appearance of a tumour.

In the current study published in the British Journal of Cancer they measured the numbers of methyl groups attached to DNA taken from the cells lining the large intestine of bowel cancer patients. They found subtle changes that may make the whole surface of the bowel more vulnerable to the eventual development of tumours by causing the 'addiction' of cells to abnormal gene expression.

Some of these changes seem to occur naturally with age, but, supported by the Food Standards Agency, IFR is investigating the possibility that factors in our lifestyle such as diet, obesity and exercise can accelerate or delay DNA methylation as we grow older, thus giving us some degree of control over this vital aspect of our long-term health.

Professor Nigel Brown, Director of Science and Technology at BBSRC said: "Basic research in the relatively young field of epigenetics is already contributing to our understanding of human health. Understanding how epigenetic processes work to maintain healthy cells and tissues is the key to long-term health because, as we see here, the breakdown of these normal processes may subsequently cause disease. BBSRC funds a range of research in the field of epigenetics and has been encouraging networking amongst members of the European epigenetics research community."



Zoe Dunford, Media Manager, Institute of Food Research
t: 01603 255111
m: 07768 164185

Andy Chapple, Press Office Assistant, Institute of Food Research
t: 01603 251490
m: 07785 766779

Notes to editors

  • Reference: British Journal of Cancer (2008) doi:10.1038/sj.bjc.6604432

  • The mission of the Institute of Food Research ( is to undertake international quality scientific research relevant to food and human health and to work in partnership with others to provide underpinning science for consumers, policy makers, the food industry and academia. It is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status, grant aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (

  • The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.