Studying Down syndrome to fight cancer: Denver's Crnic Institute looking at genes that battle tumors

DENVER - Cancer research often involves testing treatments on people who are suffering from the disease, but researchers in Denver are taking a closer look at a group of people who are rarely ever diagnosed with certain types of cancers: people with Down syndrome.

Researchers in Denver said less than 1 percent of people with Down syndrome develop hard tumor forms of cancer, like breast and prostate cancers. In comparison, the general U.S. population develops those forms of cancers at a rate of 4.7 percent. Researchers also said adults with Down syndrome are 20 percent less likely to die from hard tumor cancers than the general population.

"Imagine for a moment there's a group of individuals, 450,000 of them in the USA, that are highly protected from cancer," said Dr. Joaquin Espinosa. "Wouldn't you want to study them to find out what is particular about them?" 

Dr. Espinosa is leading a team of researchers at the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome in Denver. The group is working in concert with 28 other labs, including the University of Colorado, to determine whether people with Down syndrome could hold the key to treating or even preventing cancer for everyone.

"What is it about the genetic makeup that prevents the development of all those tumors?" said Espinosa. "You want to go in and do the research and find out. If we knew the identity of these genes that could enable diagnostics and therapeutics for them and everyone else."

The doctor's focus of study is the single extra chromosome with which people with Down syndrome are born. Unraveling that genetic code could unlock the possibility of life-changing treatments for cancer.

"One of the theories in the field is that people with Down syndrome have a problem developing blood vessels. Because of that, tumors may never grow very large," Espinosa said. "They may have tumors, but ... they stay at a very small size. "

People with Down syndrome are not entirely in the clear from cancer. Doctors say some research has shown children with Down syndrome are 50 times more likely to develop leukemia before their second birthday.

"I became fascinated with this observation that people with Down Syndrome have much less solid tumors during adult life. On the other hand they're highly predisposed to leukemia early in life," Espinosa said.

21-yea-old Rachel Greenlaw's medical data will be included in studies the Crnic researchers are conducting. Rachel is a cheerleader, a Sunday school volunteer and a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with leukemia when she was nine years old and has been cancer-free for eight years.

"The research side is really important to me as a mom," said Diane Greenlaw, Rachel's mother. "This benefits the whole population as well as enriching her life."

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