New research reveals why Black Americans might be more vulnerable to colon cancer than white people are.

The researchers examined age-related “epigenetic” changes in colon tissue. These changes affect how genes work.

The investigators found that in both Black and white people, one side of the colon ages biologically faster than the other. But the side that ages faster is different, depending on race.

In Black Americans, the right side of the colon ages much faster than the left side, which could contribute to their increased colon cancer risk, make them more likely to develop cancer on the right side of the colon, and to have the cancer at a younger age, according to the authors of the study published recently in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

In white people, the left side of the colon ages faster and they’re more likely to develop cancer on that side.

The study is the first to find that the two sides of the colon age differently.

“These findings highlight the importance of colon-sidedness to biology of colorectal cancer,” said study co-leader Graham Casey, from the University of Virginia’s Center for Public Health Genomics.

“The fact that the colon biology of people of African and European ancestry differ further highlights the critical importance of more research involving participation of people of African descent,” Casey added in a university news release.

Black Americans are disproportionately affected by colorectal cancer, being 20% more likely to develop colorectal cancer and 40% more likely to die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman died of colorectal cancer at age 43.

Overall, colorectal cancer rates in the United States have dropped in recent years, but the decrease hasn’t been as large in Black Americans as in people of European descent. And even as overall rates have declined, the rate among younger people has gone up.

The study may help explain those disparities and could help scientists develop better ways to treat and prevent colorectal cancers, the researchers suggested.

According to study co-leader Dr. Li Li, head of the Cancer Control and Population Health program at University of Virginia’s Cancer Center, “Our discovery is a step forward in our effort to prevent colorectal cancer and reduce racial disparities in this deadly disease.”

More information

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has more on colon cancer.

SOURCE: University of Virginia, news release, Jan. 21, 2021