Stomach and bowel cancer—two of the most common cancers worldwide—could be treated with a class of medicines that are currently used to treat a blood disorder, according to new research.

The finding, in preclinical models, that medicines called JAK inhibitors reduce the growth of inflammation-associated stomach and bowel cancer provides the first evidence supporting their use in treating these cancers. The research was published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics (2014; doi:10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-13-0583-T), and it was done at the Melbourne-Parkville Branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in Melbourne, Australia.

JAK inhibitors are currently used to treat the cancer-like condition of myelofibrosis, and are being investigated in clinical trials for the treatment of such conditions including leukemia, lymphoma, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

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The discovery stemmed from the research team’s long interest in the link between inflammation and cancers of the digestive tract. “Recently, we have begun to unravel the complex signaling that occurs in inflamed tissues, such as when a person has a stomach ulcer or suffers from inflammatory bowel disease, and how this drives cancer development,” said Emma Stuart, PhD, of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

“By understanding the molecules that are involved in promoting the survival and growth of cancer cells, we have been able to identify which of these molecules can be targeted with potential anticancer treatments. In this case, we determined that proteins called JAKs are involved in cancer formation in the stomach and bowel. It was exciting to discover that, when JAKs were blocked with existing medications (JAK inhibitors), bowel and stomach cancer growth in experimental models was slowed, and many of the cancer cells were killed,” Stuart said.

Matthias Ernst, PhD, also of Ludwig, said that the findings were significant as JAK inhibitors were already available and had shown success in clinical trials, particularly for treating cancer-like blood conditions.

“Our team’s research has uncovered several proteins that could be valuable targets in treating cancers of the digestive tract,” Ernst said. “The reason this discovery is particularly exciting is clinical trials have already shown that JAK proteins can be safely and successfully inhibited in patients. We hope this will expedite bringing our research to possible clinical trials that may improve the outlook for people with stomach and bowel cancer.”