Most studies on colorectal carcinogenesis suggest a field defect, preceding overt development of cancer. The low incidence of adenomatous polyps in the African population, however, suggests that there may be an alternative route for cancer development. The aim of the study was to discover if the difference in incidence of colorectal cancer in Africans compared with the white population is reflected in a different pattern of cell proliferation. Histological normal mucosa from 30 patients (15 white South African (W), 15 South African Africans (A)) with confirmed colon cancer were examined. Proliferating cells were detected using the Ki-67 antigen. In addition, cell proliferation data were obtained, from 30 age matched controls (15 Africans, 15 white South Africans), without colorectal disease. The African controls were significantly younger (mean (SD) (A: 42 (20), W: 66 (13), p < 0.05)) than the white controls. The second control group had a significantly higher mean (SD) total labelling index (W: 11 (3), A: 6 (4), p < 0.05). In addition the proliferative pattern of the white group without evidence of colorectal cancer showed a comparatively large amount of dividing cells in compartment 2, compared with African controls (mean (SD) (W: 21 (8), A: 9 (8), p < 0.05)). Mucosa from Africans with cancer showed a proliferative pattern with the same increased total labelling index (A: 15 (5), W: 16 (6), p = NS, phase II proliferative lesion) and an even more pronounced upward expansion (phase I proliferative lesion) compared with white cancer patients. This suggests that the mechanism of colorectal carcinogenesis is similar in Africans and the white population. The lack of clinical evidence of the adenoma-carcinoma sequence, and the incidence of cancer at a comparatively young age in Africans may be explained by the fact that colorectal cancer in this ethnic group behaves more aggressively and that adenomatous polyps are rapidly converted into overt cancer before detection.
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