According to CBS News, a simple blood test may be able to predict cancer years before a diagnosis.
New research from Northwestern Medicine in collaboration with Harvard University shows scientists a distinct patter in the changing lengths of telomeres, the protective end caps on our strands of DNA, are a biomarker, predicting cancer years before it develops.
The study, published in EbioMedicine, was the first to track telomere changes over years in people developing cancer.
“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” Dr. Lifang Hou, the lead study author and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement. “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.”
Scientists have attempted to understand telomeres and their relationship to cancer development. Until now, the results have been inconsistent.
The study consisted of looking at measurements of telomeres in 792 people over 13 years. Of these, 135 were diagnosed with different types of cancers, including prostate, skin, lung, leukemia and others.
According to the sourcelink, initially, scientists gathered that telomeres aged more quickly – indicated by a more rapid loss of length – in the individuals who were developing cancer. In these people, the telomeres appeared as much as 15 years older than those who were not developing the disease. The study also found that the accelerated aging of the telomeres stopped three to four years before the individuals were diagnosed with cancer.
Researchers believe cancer treatment shortens telomeres so it is uncertain how their length is affected by cancer itself or the treatment.
Researchers say this is likely why previous studies have been so inconsistent. “We saw the inflection point at which rapid telomere shortening stabilizes,” Hou said. “We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body.”
Once scientists can figure out how cancer takes over the cell, Hou said they hope to develop treatments that could make cancer cells self-destruct without harming healthy cells.