Colorectal Cancer: Latest Research

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2017

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors are working to learn more about colorectal cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the best diagnostic and treatment options for you.

  • Improved detection methods. Researchers are developing tests to analyze stool samples to find genetic changes associated with colorectal cancer. By finding and removing polyps or identifying cancer early, doctors have a better chance of curing the disease.

  • Tests to predict the risk of cancer recurrence. Various genes play important roles in the growth and spread of tumors. Tests to identify these genes can help doctors and patients decide whether to use chemotherapy after treatment. Researchers hope that these tests can help people with a lower risk of recurrence avoid the side effects of additional treatment.

  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function. In the past several years, researchers have discovered a class of drugs that targets the ways that tumor cells avoid the immune system. These drugs are called checkpoint inhibitors.

    The latest research has shown that certain checkpoint inhibitors, called PD-1 or PD-L1 inhibitors, can be effective against a type of metastatic colorectal cancer that is microsatellite high (MSI-H). Recently, the FDA approved pembrolizumab and nivolumab for tumors that are MSI-H. There are ongoing clinical trials looking at combining checkpoint inhibitors with other drugs or cancer-directed treatments to see if they can be helpful in tumors that are not MSI-H.

  • BRAF mutations. BRAF mutations occur in about 10% of colorectal cancers.  For cancers that metastasize, there are trials testing targeted therapies specific to BRAF-mutated tumors. Initial studies have found certain combination therapy strategies that may be specific to BRAF-mutated tumors, and research studies are currently underway.

  • New drugs. Many new drugs are being tested for colorectal cancer, including advanced colon and rectal cancers. New types of chemotherapy and targeted therapy are being studied. Most are only available through clinical trials.

  • Palliative care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current colorectal cancer treatments to improve patients’ comfort and quality of life.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding colorectal cancer, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

  • To find clinical trials specific to your diagnosis, talk with your doctor or search online clinical trial databases now.

  • Visit the Cancer.Net Blog to read reviews of recent research in colorectal cancer and to listen to podcasts with expert perspectives on the topic.

  • Visit the website of the Conquer Cancer Foundation to find out how to help support cancer research. Please note that this link takes you to a separate ASCO website. 

The next section in this guide is Coping with Treatment. It offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, and social changes that cancer and its treatment can bring. You may use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.