Study analyzes how colon ages

Jan. 26, 2021

Scientists at the University of Virginia found that one side of the colon ages biologically faster than the other in both African Americans and people of European descent. In African Americans, however, the right side of the colon ages significantly faster, according to a press release from the university.

This finding may explain why African Americans are more likely to develop cancerous lesions on the right side and why they are more likely to suffer colorectal cancer at a younger age, the university said.

African Americans are disproportionately affected by colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that African Americans are 20 percent more likely to develop colorectal cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it. Overall, colorectal cancer rates have declined in America in recent years, but African Americans have not seen the same decreases as people of European descent. And even as the overall rates have dropped, the rate among younger people has gone up.

The university said the study is the first to show that the right and left side of the colon actually age differently. The researchers made this determination by looking at the DNA in colon tissue, and the “epigenetic” changes that come with age. These epigenetic changes are not alterations to the genes, but changes that affect how the genes work and how well they can do their jobs.

The scientists found that the right side of the colon in most African Americans had suffered a unique pattern of “hypermethylation,” affecting gene expression. It was, in essence, like the right side was old beyond its years.

The research could also explain why younger people of European descent are more likely to develop lesions on the left side – the side that tends to age faster in that group.

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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