In the newly published study, Jia and colleagues searched for more than 500 metabolites in urine samples from 60 patients with colon cancer and 63 people without the disease.
They identified more than a dozen substances that were altered in the patients, including significant disturbances in the expression of tricarboxylic acid (TCA), which regulates energy metabolism, and elevated levels of the amino acid tryptophan.
Some of the alterations were also seen in rats with colon cancer.
The research appears in the latest issue of the American Chemical Society's Journal of Proteome Research.
Jia says further studies could determine if the metabolite expression differs among patients with colorectal cancer at different stages of the disease.
If this is the case, urine analysis could prove useful for assessing how well patients are responding to treatments, he says.
American Cancer Society spokesman Michael H. Melner, PhD, says such a test is, at best, many years away if it happens at all.
Melner serves as scientific program director for molecular genetics and biochemistry for the American Cancer Society.
"This is an interesting first step, but this research is very preliminary," he tells WebMD. "I would hesitate to say anything about the potential for a urine test to detect colorectal cancer based on this research."