It is estimated that more than 15,000 Americans will succumb to esophageal cancer in 2013. In most cases, esophageal cancer is found when patients experience pain and difficulty in swallowing, which often do not appear until the cancer is advanced and difficult to treat. As a result, 83% of the patients survive less than 5 years after initial diagnosis. As early diagnosis and effective treatment are out of reach for most patients, cancer researchers are pursuing effective strategies that may help to prevent esophageal cancer
Studies show that a condition called Barrett's esophagus can increase the risk of esophageal cancer by 50 fold. Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which cells lining the lower end of the esophagus are changed and become more like the cells that line the stomach. This is caused by long-term reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus. In about one percent of people with Barrett's esophagus, the altered cells can become precancerous (known as "dysplasia") and eventually develop into a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma.
Detecting and treating dysplasia helps to prevent esophageal cancer from developing. People with Barrett's esophagus are recommended for periodic endoscopic examinations with biopsies to look for early warning signs of esophageal cancer. However, it is not uncommon that dysplasia is failed to be detected by biopsy, and the patients may lose their precious opportunity to prevent the cancer when it is still possible.
Directed by James Basilion, Ph.D., NFCR Center for Molecular Imaging at Case Western Reserve University is dedicated to developing new imaging technology for improving cancer early diagnosis and prevention. One of the team's research goals is to develop a novel strategy for detecting cellular changes in Barrett's esophagus by exploiting the molecular mechanisms involved in the disease. In preliminary studies, researchers found that a protein called Cathepsin L has the potential to be used for developing novel molecular imaging probes which can differentiate Barrett's esophagus from normal esophageal tissue. This novel approach may be useful for targeted biopsy, significantly increasing the successful rate of biopsy and improving esophageal cancer prevention.
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