Blood Tests May Predict Cancer Decades Before Disease Strikes

By R. Siva Kumar - 04 May '15 18:04PM
  • Human chromosomes
  • (Photo : Los Alamos National Laboratory/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) Micrograph of human chromosomes with yellow dye marking location of telomeres, which help in removal of old cells before they become cancerous.

After 13 years of observation, US scientists have found a key pattern of change in the length of a "biomarker present in cells", which occurs years before a patient shows some symptoms of cancer, according to rt.

One team from Harvard and Northwestern Universities observed 792 people. Among these, 135 were diagnosed with many forms of the illness, observed through the telomeres.

Chairman of the Department of Urology and Chief of Robotic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, Dr. David Samadi, explained that he never thought they would be able to diagnose a cancer patient "with 100 percent certainty more than a decade in advance," his study says, according to foxnews. 

"So what exactly is going on? It's a simple blood test," Dr. Samadi explained, noting that this is still in clinical trials.

He said that in a blood test, the ends of the chromosomes, telomeres, are examined. They are more damaged in people who get cancer.

"This is a complete game-changer if it really pans out," Dr. Samadi said. "This can practically change the face of cancer. And, of course, we're all excited about it."

Telomeres are a protective cap on the ends of chromosomes. As people age, and their cells multiply, the telomeres grow shorter, until the cell cannot multiply and dies. Hence, it shows ageing and reveals how cells with worn-out telomeres can malfunction, leading to age-related diseases, according to rt.

The patients of cancer have their telomeres reducing years before the illness develops. Some of the patients have telomeres that seemed to be typical for a person 15 years older.

Some of this deadly shortening could be noted and diagnosed just by looking at patients who had inflammation, oxidative stress and more conditions that aged their cells rapidly.

Those who did not exhibit such symptoms could also show a diagnosis.

Three to four years before the diagnosis, the shortening of the telomeres would just come to an end.

"We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body," said Dr. Lifang Hou, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and the lead author of the study published in EBioMedicine magazine.

Usually, any cell with a shortening telomere might be "aged." However, it would destroy itself to prevent the abnormalities from spreading. In "future patients", they just multiplied, eventually leading to cancer.

 "Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer. Because we saw a strong relationship in the pattern across a wide variety of cancers, with the right testing these procedures could be used to eventually diagnose a wide variety of cancers," said Hou.

The medical challenge is now to reduce the speed of the telomere shortening, and then to develop a potential cancer treatment to make the afflicted cells self-destruct, instead of making copies, so that they would not age and kill healthy cells.

Currently there are over 14 million new cancer diagnoses in 2012, and 8 million are dying of it, according to WHO.

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