3 new grants power colorectal cancer studies

Research will focus on CRC in Alaska Native people, gene + environment interactions and how systemic racism impacts care
Colorectal cancer activists rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Activists pose at a colorectal cancer awareness installation on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in March 2023 showcasing the increasing number of cases in young adults. The installation is a visual representation of more than 27,400 people under the age of 50 estimated to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2030. Photo by Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Fight Colorectal Cancer

Researchers within the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center received three new grants to support work relating to colorectal cancer.

Applied statistical genomicist Jeroen Huyghe, PhD, a principal staff scientist working with Peters Studies, received a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to delve into the molecular and cellular profiles of colorectal cancer tumor and immune microenvironment in Alaska Native people.

Other principal investigators on the grant include Fred Hutch molecular and genetic epidemiologist Ulrike (Riki) Peters, PhD, MPH, and senior epidemiologist Diana Redwood, PhD, MPH, of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, or ANTHC.

For over 40 years, Alaska Native people have had both the highest incidence and the highest mortality rates for colorectal cancer, or CRC, in the world. These rates are more than double the overall national rates in the U.S., even though their preventive screening rates are comparable with those found in the rest of the country. 

Why are the incidence and mortality rates so much higher? The team intends to find out.

Fred Hutch Principal Staff Scientist Jeroen Huyghe, PhD
Fred Hutch principal staff scientist Dr. Jeroen Huyghe received a 5-year, $3.5 million grant from the NCI to delve into the molecular and cellular profiles of colorectal cancer tumor and immune microenvironment in Alaska Native people. Fred Hutch file photo

“We aim to deeply characterize the mutational, transcriptional and cellular landscapes of colorectal tumors and their immune microenvironments in 500 Alaska Native patients and link these characteristics to colorectal-specific mortality,” Huyghe said, adding that Fred Hutch will partner closely with ANTHC for this work.

Samples from ANTHC’s unique biorepository, which contains tumor tissue samples from Alaska Native CRC patients that can be linked to comprehensive medical records, were used in a pilot to test the feasibility of the study.

Researchers will compare Alaska Native CRC tumor and microenvironment molecular profiles with those from CRC patients of European ancestry; they’ll also perform whole-exome sequencing of CRC tumors — that is, they’ll sequence all the protein-coding regions of the genes — and will pair normal samples to identify driver genes and clinically actionable mutations particularly relevant to the Alaska Native population. In addition, they’ll analyze mutational signatures that may be linked to environmental exposures and identify germline mutations in high-penetrance CRC risk genes to investigate their role in the increased CRC risk seen in Alaska Native people.

Finally, they’ll apply spatial molecular profiling technologies to identify prognostic biomarkers, characterize tumoral immune response and unveil mechanisms of immune evasion.

“The insights gained through this work may result in improved identification of patients at high risk of dying from CRC, which can be used to guide clinical decision-making,” Huyghe said. “They may also inform the development of novel therapeutic strategies and ultimately decrease mortality.”

Fred Hutch public health researcher Dr. Riki Peters
Dr. Ulrike (Riki) Peters gives a presentation during the Seattle Translational Tumor Research (STTR) Retreat at the Museum of Flight in June 2023. Peters and her team received a 5-year, $4.4 million grant from the NCI to study gene and environment interactions and how they impact colorectal cancer risk. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Digging into CRC’s gene-environment interactions

Peters and biostatistician Li Hsu, PhD, also received a five-year, $4.4 million grant from the NCI to further investigate colorectal cancer risk. Last year, Peters’ team and collaborators published research on 100 new genetic risk variants for the disease.

Now they plan to investigate gene-environment interactions in a diverse population using an integrative omics approach.

“The extent to which environmental risk factors such as lifestyle, diet, obesity, drug use and other factors modulate genetic risk — or vice versa — is poorly understood,” Peters said. “We urgently need a comprehensive approach that combines high-dimensional multi-omics data with diverse, large and well-characterized study populations and novel statistical approaches.”

Pinpointing which environmental factors influence genetic risk can provide key biological insights as well as provide guidance for personalized screening and actionable targets for interventions. Multi-omics methods, including single-cell technologies, have helped reveal cell-type specific biological processes and how environmental risk factors and genetic variants impact disease development.

But the lack of data on gene regulation in non-Europeans hampers progress.

The NCI grant will allow researchers to profile colorectal samples from 50 healthy racially and ethnically diverse participants as well as investigate “intermediate biomarkers” related to CRC, including glucose, insulin, and inflammatory markers such as interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein.

“We will use genetic instruments to predict biomarkers linked to metabolic dysregulation and inflammation, two important risk factors for CRC, and will incorporate them along with our measured exposures into gene-environment analyses,” Hsu said.

Resources include a data set containing 99,000 colorectal patients and 140,000 healthy participants or “controls,” of which over 21,000 of the cancer patients and over 35,000 of the control participants are of non-European descent.

“These data will be integrated with single-cell and existing biobank data and state-of-the-art resources and technologies to conduct a comprehensive functional-informed genomic gene plus environment examination and risk prediction analysis,” Peters said. “We hope to discover novel interactions by conducting a functionally informed, genome-wide gene-plus-environment interaction scan across the spectrum of key environmental risk factors, including obesity, diabetes, smoking, alcohol, drug use, diet and intermediate biomarkers linked to metabolic dysregulation and chronic inflammation.”

Ultimately, Peters, Hsu and others plan to integrate functional single-cell omics data within the largest CRC genetic-epidemiology database in the world to better understand the extent to which modifiable risk factors impact genetic risk in colorectal cancer (and vice versa).

Findings of this study are expected to impact CRC prevention by guiding lifestyle interventions, personalizing screening decisions and ultimately reducing the burden of this cancer.

Fred Hutch public health researcher Dr. Carolyn Rutter
Fred Hutch biostatistician Dr. Carolyn Rutter received a 5-year, $2.2 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to investigate the health and financial costs of unequal care in colorectal cancer. Fred Hutch file photo

Measuring the cost of unequal care

Not only does systemic racism in the U.S. health care system lead to inequitable access to care, it can also lead to higher costs of care.

Fred Hutch biostatistician Carolyn Rutter, PhD, recently received a 5-year, $2.2 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to investigate the health and financial costs of this unequal care in colorectal cancer.

“There is ample evidence of racial disparities in every step of the colorectal cancer care continuum, from early detection to treatment, especially for differences between Black patients and white patients,” Rutter said. “Colorectal cancer care provides a case study.”

Research shows Black people are less likely than white people to be screened for colorectal cancer and are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage. Black people are also less likely to receive curative treatment — even after accounting for stage at diagnosis, and they have 40% higher mortality and shorter stage-specific survival.

“These differences in care have both health and economic consequences,” Rutter said, pointing to worse outcomes and higher treatment costs.

For the study, Rutter will use her microsimulation model known as CRC-SPIN (Colorectal Cancer Simulated Population model for Incidence and Natural history), which has been used for comparative effectiveness studies of colorectal cancer screening and care. She’ll broaden its use to simulate the natural history of CRC among specific racial and ethnic groups including American Indian/Alaska Native people; Hispanic people; Pacific Islanders and people from Asia; Black/African American people, etc. 

Additionally, Rutter and team will fold in patient characteristics beyond race and ethnicity that impact screening, such as insurance status.

This extended model will be used to simulate the overall impact of disparate care on CRC patient outcomes — measuring life years lost, disease-free life years lost and excess colorectal cancer including late-stage CRC. They’ll also identify elements of the care process that have the largest impact on outcomes to better guide health policy and will measure financial outcomes including screening costs, treatment costs and lost income both overall and for specific racial/ethnic groups.

Finally, they’ll use their model to project impact of policies that reduce racial/ethnic disparities in order to identify what’s most effective.

“We plan to use this information to estimate the extent to which disparities in care explain disparities in CRC outcomes, and to evaluate policies to reduce disparities,” Rutter said.

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org. Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Visit our Patient Care page.

Read more about Fred Hutch achievements and accolades.

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