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News Archive - Progress Newsletter Summer, 1999 Online

Research Roundup: New Drug to Treat Barrett's Esophagus

Recent studies show an alarming increase in cancers of the lower esophagus (or junction between the stomach and the esophagus). Population studies have found that people with a condition known as Barrett's esophagus have a four- to six-fold increase in esoph-ageal cancer when compared to people without this condition. Barrett's esophagus is characterized by a change in the types of cells that line the inside of the esophagus. It can occur when an excessive amount of stomach acid irritates the area where the esophagus connects to the stomach. The medical term for this is gastro-esophageal reflux, but it's often called heartburn.

Today, most people with Barrett's esophagus are treated with drugs that reduce the amount of acid the stomach makes and with periodic endoscopic procedures that check for enlargement or changes in the esophagus.

Cancer prevention expert Dean Brenner, M.D., and colleagues are looking at new ways to stop or slow the progression of Barrett's esophagus to cancer. "We are testing a new drug, DFMO (difluoromethylornithine) that interrupts the production of important cellular proteins that control cell growth," says Dr. Brenner. "By slowing cell growth, we believe we can slow the emergence of cancer."

The study calls for people with Barrett's esophagus to take DFMO or a look-alike placebo once daily for six months. Using an endoscope, biopsies are taken immediately before and after drug treatment, as well as six months after the drug has been discontinued. Tissues are compared under a microscope to see if DFMO causes any changes in the Barrett's cells that have replaced the normal esophagus lining cells.

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