UH Moment

UH Moment: “Colon Cancer”

More than a million people in the U.S. are living with colon cancer, the second leadingcause of cancer-related deaths.  Learn about the promising research at the University of Houston to prevent and treat it.

A colonoscopy may determine if you are at risk for colon cancer, but what do you do with that information.

“We are very good at identifying people who are at increased risk, but we don’t have a lot to do once you have identified that increased risk,” said Cecilia Williams, assistant professor at the UH Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling.  

Williams and her team research the role estrogen can play in colon cancer prevention and treatment.

Cecilia Williams in her lab (Photo courtesy of the Daily Cougar)
Cecilia Williams in her lab (Photo courtesy of the Daily Cougar)

“Estrogen can reduce inflammation, and inflammation is strongly correlated with colon cancer development,” she said. “It also can turn off genes that cause the cell to turn into a tumor cell.”

Estrogen has a dubious reputation, thought to increase the risk of some cancers. Williams’ research finds that, like a lock and a key, there is one receptor inside the cell that connects with estrogen in a positive way.   

“We can design a compound that activates only this receptor. The compound isn’t absorbed well by the body, so it primarily goes to the colon and intestinal system,” Williams said.

The Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling (CNRCS) houses one of the world’s leading nuclear receptor research groups. The CNRCS combines basic, translational and clinical biosciences to create collaboration between academia and industry, including researchers at the prestigious Texas Medical Center and elsewhere. Its goal is to find new treatments for cancers, diabetes and obesity.

The National Cancer Institute awarded Williams a $1.56 million grant to pursue her research over the next five years.

“If this turns out to be an efficient preventive approach, it’s huge –a lot of people will benefit,” she said. “The older you get the higher the risk, so it’s a major part of the population. I’m hopeful that this will decrease the colon cancer rate significantly.”