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UNC Researcher Receives NIH Grant to Model Rare and Puzzling Type of GI Cancer

When one hears about a tumor of the gut, the first thing that probably comes to mind is colorectal cancer. It is, after all, the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death. Yet, by size, the small intestine dwarfs the colon, making up more than 70 percent of the length and 90 percent of the surface area of the digestive tract. Still, cancers of the small intestine are so rare that only limited information is available on their incidence, prognosis, and treatment prospects.

Thin tissue section stained with markers for Intestinal Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs).
Thin tissue section stained with markers for Intestinal Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs). Green circles are tumor nodules, blue circles are normal tissue.
(Credit: Dr. Haydee Lara)

"Nobody really understands why that's the case," said NC TraCS member Scott Magness, an expert of gut biology. "For the number of cells you have in your small intestine, it's shocking that you don't get more cancers like you do in the colon." When cancers do arise in the small intestine, they look completely different, presenting as a rare, slow-growing variety known as neuroendocrine tumors or NETs.

Recently, Magness received a $350,000, two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to engineer new approaches to study this puzzling type of cancer. Scientists still don't know the types of mutations that generate NETs, or even the cell type in which it originates.

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Michelle Maclay, Communications Director