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October 2014

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Research assistant Natasha Di Costanzo with Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s Associate Professor Alex Boussioutas.

Stomach cancer study

The most thorough analysis of stomach cancer ever undertaken has revealed there are four distinct sub-types, shedding new light on how researchers can develop new approaches to tackle the world’s third biggest cancer killer.

Associate Professor Alex Boussioutas, a gastroenterologist at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the sole Australian contributor to the study, said it could be a game-changer in how clinicians treat people with stomach cancer.

‘Since the 1960s, we have only been aware of two pathological sub-types of stomach cancer, based on the different appearance of cells when looking down a microscope.

‘We have now shown there are four major molecular subtypes, each with their own molecular targets on which researchers can base new treatments.’

Using six distinct but complementary molecular analysis platforms, The Cancer Genome Atlas network (TCGA) – an alliance of researchers from Australia, North America and South Korea – mapped rearrangements and mutations in the DNA of 295 stomach tumours.

Associate Professor Boussioutas said that, within a few years, information from the stomach cancer ‘atlas’ would take on crucial clinical relevance.

‘Once we reach the five-year mark, an important measurement of patient survival, we will be able to paint a comprehensive picture of how these different tumour types behave, to which treatments they respond and to which they are resistant and what each sub-type means to an individual’s prognosis.’

Associate Professor Boussioutas says the extra insight was critical in stomach cancers, which he describes as a ‘silent killer.’

‘The symptoms of stomach cancer, which may include heartburn and indigestion, are easily overlooked so, unfortunately, many people are diagnosed when their disease is advanced and the long-term survival rate is less than 20 per cent.

‘This comprehensive and freely-available information will help us make serious inroads in management of these tumours, giving people with stomach cancer access to a wider range of viable treatment options and more personalised care.’

It is expected more than 2,000 Australians will be diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014.

Each year, more than 1,100 Australians die from a form of the disease.