Science & Research

Reducing the risk

Researcher's efforts help reduce risk of cancer

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2012

The results of two research projects conducted by Dr. Harminder Singh are helping to reduce the risk of cancer for patients with gastrointestinal issues.

The first study, which took place between 2010 and 2012, involved people living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a condition affecting more than 200,000 Canadians, with as many as 9,000 new cases every year.

Many people with IBD take a class of drugs called thiopurines (azathiopurine and 6 mercaptopurine) to keep their disease under control, says Singh, an assistant professor of medicine in the Departments of Internal Medicine and Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Medicine. Studies have shown that people with IBD are at a slightly higher risk for skin cancer. But Singh's study discovered something new: people who take thiopurines are at much greater risk for a more aggressive kind of skin cancer called squamous skin cancer.

In fact, his research suggests that people who have IBD and take thiopurines - two factors that suppress the body's immune system - are six to 20 times more likely to develop squamous cell skin cancer than those without IBD and not taking the drug.

As Singh explains, IBD tends to occur in younger people who will need to take thiopurines over a long period of time. They need to understand that they must take precautions to protect against skin cancer.

"They need to be cautious of exposure to the sun," he says, adding that any skin lesions that develop should be looked at promptly. "Such simple measures should help reduce the risk of developing skin cancers. We are also hoping that with increased awareness, skin cancers are picked up early because the earlier they are caught, the better the outcomes."

A second project, which took place between 2009 to 2010, looked at the effectiveness of colonoscopies in reducing deaths due to colon cancer in usual clinical practice. Studies have shown that having a colonoscopy does reduce the risk of death from colon cancer located in the lower part of the bowel. But the protective effect appears to be less for tumours that develop in the upper part of the bowel. There appears to be a very large variation in the performance of colonoscopy by different physicians, says Singh. "Our health-care administrators now recognize the need to decrease this variation and ensure that everyone gets similar care, which should lead to lower cancer rates," he says.

Wave: November / December 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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