The study's findings have been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. Our funding was used to investigate bowel cancer, in particular how cells evolve within polyps that grow in the bowel and from which bowel cancer develops.

Many of us will develop polyps as we age, they are not uncommon. However, not all polyps will develop into cancer and understading why some do will be a key to future diagnositics and treatments.

As tumours grow, different cells acquire various genetic changes that allow them to adapt to their environment. The cells that acquire changes that confer the best chance of survival and growth within the environment are favoured, and so increase in number. This is the basis of cancer evolution. In this way, numerous populations of cells with different genetic codes build up, creating tumours that are highly genetically diverse or heterogeneous.

By comparing the genetics of benign and cancerous bowel tumours, the international team led by Prof Ian Tomlinson (University of Oxford and the University of Birmingham) and Prof Trevor Graham (BCI) - revealed that the benign growths were more heterogeneous than the cancerous tumours.

In addition, the team identified some other striking differences between the genetic makeups of the two tumour types. Unlike the benign samples, the cancerous tumours appeared to have largely rearranged chromosomes (structures that carry our genetic information in the form of genes), with sections of the genetic code being lost or gained.

Using mathematical modelling, the researchers were able to determine when these rearrangements occurred in the timeline of cancer development. Surprisingly, they found that the majority of the genetic alterations occurred very close together in time, possibly even in a single incident referred to by the researchers as a chromosomal catastrophe.’ This event appeared to be associated with the transition from benign to cancerous tumours.

Trevor Graham said of the study:

Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK. Our study gives more insight into how bowel cancer develops, and provides a foundation that we can build upon to develop tools to predict who is at risk of developing the disease. 

Read more about our funding for investigation into cell evolution in polyps.