Researchers at Harvard and Northwestern University are developing a cancer test that can detect it up to 13 years before its onset. You heard that correctly:
Check out the article from Telegraph:
They found that the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, which prevent DNA damage, had significantly more wear and tear in people who went on to develop cancer. In fact, in some cases they looked 15 years older.
Those caps, known as telomeres, were much shorter than they should be and continued to get shorter until around four years before the cancer developed, when they suddenly stopped shrinking. All the people with the changes went on to develop cancer.
“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.
“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.”
Although many people may not want to know that they will develop cancer in the future, it could allow them to make lifestyle changes to lower their risk. Stanford University is also working on a project looking at how telemores can be regrown.
However insurance companies warned that such a test could push up policy premiums.
Matt Sanders, in charge of protection insurance products at GoCompare, said people with such a diagnoses could be priced out of the insurance marker.
“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 said.
“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.”
Aviva also said that continually monitored advances in medical sciences ‘ to ensure they are reflected in the premiums paid by our customers, where appropriate.’
In the new study, scientists took multiple measurements of telomeres over a 13-year period in 792 persons, 135 of whom were eventually diagnosed with different types of cancer, including prostate, skin, lung and leukaemia.
Initially, scientists discovered telomeres aged much faster, indicated by a more rapid loss of length, in individuals who were developing but not yet diagnosed with cancer.
Telomeres in all the people who went on to develop cancer looked as much as 15 years older than those of people who were not developing the disease.
But then scientists found the accelerated aging process stopped three to four years before the cancer diagnosis.
Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides. The older a person is, the more times each cell has divided, and the shorter their telomeres.
Because cancer cells divide and grow rapidly, scientists would expect the cell would get so short it would self-destruct. But that’s not what happens, scientists discovered.
“We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body,” added Dr Hou.
The team is hoping that if it can identify how cancer hijacks the cell, then treatments could be developed to cause cancer cells to self-destruct without harming healthy cells.
For those less scientifically inclined as myself, telomeres are the end-caps that shield the ends of our DNA. These are an essential part of human cells that affect how our cells change. Without this coating our DNA becomes damaged and our cells can’t do their job (source).
These telomeres maintain genetic stability and their length decreases with age and environmental exposures causing oxidative stress. Chronic inflammation can also accelerate this process.
Previous research hasn’t been very reliable or helpful since it measured the BTL (Blood Telomere Length) after the disease developed which doesn’t help isolate whether the shortening was due to the disease and the treatment or both.
The research article, available on ScienceDirect, indicates that the telomeres in cancer-diagnosed individuals were found to be much older, by about 15 years. The aging ceased 3-4 years prior to the onset of the disease.
So how do telomeres shorten?
Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides. The older a person is, the more times each cell has divided and the shorter the telomere.
Cancer cells divide and grow rapidly but instead of these cells self-destructing, the cancer is using this telomere shortening to flourish the body.
As noted by Dr. Hou in the article, they are trying to discover how this hijacking occurs to try and have the cells self-destruct without harming healthy cells. Alternatively, Stanford University is also looking at how telomeres can be regrown.
There is still more work to be done. Especially considering that the participant pool for this research was all men, primarily Caucasian, so more research with a more diverse group that includes women is needed. Still, this is a great place to start and it brings hope to creating a cancer test that can potentially lead to the prevention of the disease. A disease that could inevitably take your life or the life of someone close to you.
The article points out that some folks may not want to know if they are going to develop cancer in the future; who wouldn’t!? If you can prevent and prolong your life why wouldn’t you want to have this vital piece of insight? I for one want to sign up as soon as this test is available. I may not be as proactive with a lot of other aspects of my life but when it comes to my health I would like to leave this world knowing I did everything humanly possible to remain on it. When I die, it is going to be because every force in this universe said it’s time to go.
What are your thoughts on this potential cancer test? What have you been learning lately?
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