The polypeptide hormone gastrin was identified nearly a hundred years ago and its role in the regulation of acid secretion is well established. Gastrin also acts as a growth factor and is trophic for the normal gastric oxyntic mucosa. This growth promoting action has led to the extensive investigation of its role in carcinogenesis, in particular colorectal neoplasia. The relationship between gastrin and colorectal adenocarcinoma has been subject to controversy, however the findings from several recent studies have resulted in a clearer understanding of the mechanism of action of gastrin in this is common cancer.
The majority of colorectal cancers produce their own gastrin, which may act in an autocrine manner. The tumour cells also express gastrin/CCKB receptors (and/or a combination of isoforms) which mediate the proliferative action. This locally produced gastrin gives rise to a small increase in systemic gastrin levels. Autocrine gastrin may also have a role in tumour development, as expression occurs early in the adenoma–carcinoma sequence. In addition, several studies using animal models have shown that systemic hypergastrinaemia promotes the proliferation of both normal and neoplastic colonic epithelium. Hyperproliferative colonic epithelium in the presence of hypergastrinaemia has been recorded in humans and a well-designed epidemiological study has demonstrated an increased incidence of colorectal cancer.
Gastrin is a potential therapeutic target in the treatment of colorectal cancer and several approaches have been assessed. Receptor antagonists and antisecretory agents have been demonstrated to be ineffectual. Novel methods of inhibition, including the use of anti-gastrin antibodies, are currently being evaluated.