Section of a drawn diagram of the human gut

Human gut health is integral to health and wellbeing.

Bowel cancer and gut health

Our gut health is integral to our overall health and wellbeing. Healthy eating, regular exercise and participating in bowel cancer screening programs can lower the risk of developing bowel cancer.

  • 12 February 2009 | Updated 14 October 2011

Australia has one of the highest incidence rates of bowel cancer (or colorectal cancer) in the world. The good news is that significant improvements in incidence and survival rates are possible through relatively cost effective improvements to disease diagnosis, diet and lifestyle.

Improving gut health is an integral component of improving Australians’ wellbeing.

Defining the problem

Bowel cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in Australia. Over 12 000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year and around 90 Australians die each week from the disease. This already high incidence is projected to increase as our population ages. Bowel cancer can be treated successfully if detected in its early stages, but currently fewer than 40 per cent of bowel cancers are detected early.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) compromises the quality of life and productivity  of up to 60 000 Australians. In addition to the debilitating effects of the disease, people with IBD also have an increased risk of developing bowel cancer.

The prognosis for patients presenting with bowel cancer in its earliest stages is an approximate 90 per cent chance of survival beyond five years. For those presenting with advanced, metastatic disease, however, the five-year survival drops to as low as five per cent. 

The challenge

CSIRO scientists are working to reduce Australia’s bowel cancer burden by developing prevention strategies based around diet and lifestyle and improving the success rate of existing and emerging therapies through early detection and identification of people at elevated risk of the disease.

Our researchers are investigating many aspects of bowel cancer prevention, with key foci on developing simple and cost effective tests for detection of bowel cancer at its earliest stages, identifying genetic factors predisposing people to develop bowel cancer, developing foods that can reduce the risk of bowel cancer, and enhancing the utility and performance of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

A research team from the Preventative Health Flagship is working with leading clinicians to identify biomarkers and early indicators of bowel cancer, identify people at high risk of getting bowel cancer with the goal of developing sensitive diagnostic tools that will help reduce both the incidence and mortality from this disease.

Researchers in the Food Futures Flagship are developing cereal crops with high levels of resistant starch, including new wheat and barley varieties (amongst them BARLEYmax®). Resistant starch is a key active component of fibre that produces cancer-fighting compounds when fermented by the bacteria in the colon. Community uptake of these enhanced grains has the potential to improve bowel health at the population level.

Our approach

Bowel cancer and gut health have been identified as a National Health Priority for Australia.

CSIRO is developing tailored preventative strategies with its research activities segmented into the discovery and development of:

  • protective foods, for people at elevated risk of developing bowel cancer that can potentially delay the onset or reduce the incidence of the disease in this population
  • grain varieties high in resistant starch that, when incorporated into everyday consumer food products such as breads and cereals, will improve bowel health and reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in the general population
  • biomarkers and screening tools for earlier and more reliable diagnosis of bowel cancer and identification of those with a predisposition to the disease. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the survival rate and the greater the reduction in health care costs
  • methods of increasing screening up-take and re-screening behaviour of ageing Australians in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. Bowel cancer screening has been shown to save lives, and by detecting the cancer earlier, the economic impact of this disease can be reduced
  • health data integration tools and networks which can provide researchers access to integrated and current cancer data from hospitals and research institutes within and between the states
  • a colonoscopy simulator to provide off-patient training for doctors as part of an Australian colonoscopy training curriculum
  • diet and lifestyle approaches to ameliorate the effects of IBD developed through an improved understanding of the relationship between nutrition, the microbiology of the gut and colonic health.

Read more about prevention related health information.