Stan Walker's family are to be part of a groundbreaking clinical trial scientists hope will cure them of the disease that has killed dozens of relatives.

Twenty-one years ago, Professor Parry Guilford discovered the Tauranga family had a faulty gene that causes about 80 per cent of people with it to develop stomach cancer.

He says he has been "fascinated ever since" and has devoted years to research in an attempt to come up with a cure.

That research includes growing tiny stomachs derived from mice in his lab at the University of Otago, on which he has been testing drugs.

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Currently, the only treatment for those who carry the gene and develop cancer is to have their stomach removed, as Walker did last year.

Stan Walker as seen in his documentary following him getting his stomach removed
Stan Walker as seen in his documentary following him getting his stomach removed

But that can lead to several complications - as suffered by the pop star - and causes dramatic weight loss, and the patient's quality of life is affected because their diet is restricted.

Guilford is hoping one of the drugs he has developed will kill the disease so the stomach can remain.​

Read more: The science that saved Stan Walker

He has developed hundreds over the years but narrowed his trials down to about 20.

The "micro-stomachs" or organoids are tiny tissue cultures that can only be seen through a microscope. Guilford says they allow him and his team to test the drugs on a more "realistic model" than the usual lab method of growing monolayers (a cell culture one cell thick) in plastic dishes.

"Those are such a long way away from the real world. In the real world, cells grow in three dimensions, its quite a complex system. So these are a step to having a much more natural system grown in the lab.

Walker performs at the Rotorua Summer Seafood Festival in February, having lost weight after his surgery five months prior. Photo / Ben Fraser
Walker performs at the Rotorua Summer Seafood Festival in February, having lost weight after his surgery five months prior. Photo / Ben Fraser

"We're getting strong leads on what drugs are going to be useful."

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The next step is to test the drugs on live mice, which he hopes to start this year.

Then - Guilford hopes within about five years - human clinical trials will start.

After he discovered Walker's family's gene in 1997, he found 17 other families in New Zealand also carried it. Overseas scientists built on his research and hundreds of families around the world were also found to carry the gene.

Guilford hopes to have an initial test group of about 12 people, including members of Walker's family but possibly some internationally.

Otago University cancer researcher Professor Parry Guilford.
Otago University cancer researcher Professor Parry Guilford.

He would start with people who have the gene who have decided to have their stomachs removed. Some people have the surgery as a preventative measure before signs of cancer are obvious.

They would be given the drug a few months before their surgery and once the stomach is out, it would be analysed to see if there were any cancer lesions. Walker had 13 lesions before his stomach was removed.

"In 99 per cent of people with the mutation, you will find early stage disease in there," Guilford said.

"It's too small to be seen with an endoscope, but you will see it with a microscope.

"If we find that our drugs give us a series of patients who don't have any signs of cancer in their stomachs after they've received the drugs for a month or two, then we can be really confident the drugs are useful.

A photo of one of the
A photo of one of the "micro-stomachs" Guilford and his team have created. This one shows early-stage cancer. Photo / Tanis Godwin and Yasmin Nouri

"What we are hoping for is we get a series of patients where we see nothing, their stomachs are clean."

If they get positive results, they want to test members of the family who decide to keep their stomach for as long as possible, administering them drugs over a longer period.

Guilford Expects the trial to take several years but he's hoping it will have implications for the more common form of stomach cancer not caused by the gene.

"That's a driver for us as well. In some ways we can use this as a model system for more cancers around the world," he said.

A normal stomach without the CDH1 gene. Photo / Tanis Godwin and Yasmin Nouri.
A normal stomach without the CDH1 gene. Photo / Tanis Godwin and Yasmin Nouri.

About 400,000 new cases of stomach cancer are reported worldwide each year.

The Walker family - with whom Guilford has stayed in touch with regularly over the past 21 years - was receptive to his research, he said.

They hadn't seen the lab stomachs yet but other families with the gene had.