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Scientists from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Masonic Cancer Center have identified two proteins that appear to cause some forms of colon cancer.

The RSPO2 and RSPO 3 proteins were previously thought only to activate cell proliferation during embryonic development. Now researchers have discovered that these proteins can be reactivated in adults through genetic mutation. They believe that these proteins could signal cells to restart the cell proliferation process, which can lead to tumour growth in the colon.

The discovery was made while studying human colon tumours. Scientists analysed more than 70 pairs of human colon tumours. Researchers identified 36 rearrangements that result in gene fusions, including two recurrent ones involving R-spondin family members RSPO2 and RSPO 3.

Researchers believe that RSPO2 and RSPO 3 proteins could play a major role in the development of colon cancer, according to the findings published in Nature.

"These results suggest there is a potential for personalised therapies based on knowing a tumour's specific genetics," said David Largaespada, associate director of basic sciences and professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development. "And because these R-spondins are related to embryonic growth, and seem to not have major roles in the adult, targeting them would likely be low in side effects."

Scientists claim that more research is necessary before these results can be applied to actual patient care.

"Diagnosis may be less about the tissue where the tumour is found, like the breast or colon," said Caitlin Conboy, student at the University of Minnesota.