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Scientists devise test to predict cancer years before diagnosis

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Scientists have devised a test that can predict whether a person will contract cancer within 13 years.  The tests highlight a tiny, but significant change in a person’s DNA, which start to happen well before cancer begins to grow.

Researchers have discovered that those who start to develop cancer have shorter telomeres. These are the protective caps at the end of chromosomes. The telomeres serve to keep the DNA safe, and guard them from damage. Researchers found that those people who had shorter telomeres went on to develop cancer in later years.

In some cases researchers found that the telomeres looked around 15 years older than normal, and had a significant amount of wear and tear on them.

“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” said Dr. Lifang Hou, the lead study author and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study, which was carried out by researchers at Harvard and Northwestern University, showed that these protective caps got shorter and shorter until around four years before the cancer started to develop. They then stopped shrinking.

In the study, measurements were taken of telomeres over 13 year’s period from some 792 persons. Eventually 135 of these persons were diagnosed with different types of cancer.  Initial results showed that the telomeres in the cancer patients, who had not yet been diagnosed, had aged much faster. This was noted by a faster loss of length. Then scientists noted that this accelerated aging process stopped abruptly around three to four years before the cancer was diagnosed.

In a normal human body, telomeres shorten every time a cell divides in the body. Therefore, the older a person is, the shorter their telomeres. In cancer patients, because the cancer cells divide so rapidly, the telomeres shorten quickly. However, they do not shorten them so much that they are completely destroyed.

“We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body,” said Dr Hou.

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Every single person who had shortened telomeres then went on to develop cancer.  The study also revealed that this shortening of telomeres was constant across a different number of cancers:

“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 Dr. Hou.

The study has raised several issues. It poses the question of whether an early cure might be possible, or whether people might want to start making different lifestyle choices.

But it also raises the question as to whether people would want to know if they are at risk of possibly contracting cancer.

Meanwhile, Stanford University is currently working on a project to see if there is any way that telomeres can be regrown.

As for medical insurance, some companies are already warning that premiums could sky rocket, if people are diagnosed with shortened telomeres, they are unlikely to be able to get any kind of medical or life insurance.

Matt Sanders, who heads up the protection insurance products at GoCompare, had this to say:

“If this test showed 100 per cent probability over a certain number of years then it could affect premiums. It would be the equivalent of living in a high theft area for someone looking for home insurance,” he added.

“Premiums could rise to a point where some people would simply be priced out. However if it was shown that diagnosing earlier could prevent cancer then that could bring down premiums.”

The research team is hoping to identify the method in which cancer hijacks the telomeres in order develop a treatment. They want to cause the cancer cells to eventually self-destruct without harming the healthy telomere cells.

You can find this research in the online journal Ebiomedicine.

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