Beating bowel cancer together

Using stem cells to reduce complications after bowel cancer surgery

Lead researcher: Mr Joshua Burke

Location: University of Leeds

Grant award: £32,500

Dates: October 2019 to September 2020

Bowel Cancer UK/RCS Research Fellow, Mr Joshua Burke, looked at ways to reduce a serious complication of bowel cancer surgery, and if a special type of stem cell will help improve healing after surgery and reduce the chance of a complication known as ‘anastomotic leak’.

The challenge

Anastomotic leak is a serious complication that can sometimes happen after bowel cancer surgery. This is when the contents of the bowel leaks through the part of the bowel that was rejoined during surgery. This type of complication can happen in up to 15% of patients who have this type of surgery and can have devastating long term consequences.

The science behind the project

Mr Burke’s research investigated whether using a special type of stem cell, known to help wound healing, could help prevent anastomotic leaks after bowel surgery.  

The stem cells can be taken from the abdomen (tummy) during surgery and are applied to the join in the bowel using a special type of gel.  Mr Burke used animal models to find out more about whether this combination of stem cells and gel are safe to use and how well they can help to promote healing and stop leakage.


The early tests of this technique showed promising results. As this was work done in animals, it will now need to be trialled in people.

If you like, you can find out more about this work by reading this key research article, published by the researchers.

Other impact

Mr Burke also carried out a review of previous research that used stem cells in animal models of anastomotic leak and published this, spreading awareness of the technique to other researchers.

What difference will this project make?

This research addresses a major surgical complication. Finding ways to reduce anastomotic leaks could significantly reduce long term side effects for patients following surgery, reduce costs and ultimately help save lives. The new technique of combining these stem cells and gel could also be used to help wound healing in other parts of the body.

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