Cancer research is constantly pushing not only for cures and treatments for various types of cancer, but also for ways to detect cancer earlier and with more accuracy. Statistics show that early detection of cancer is linked to lower mortality rates, even in aggressive forms of cancer(1).
Now, scientists have discovered mounting evidence that a special part of chromosomes that function to protect DNA – the part is referred to as telomeres – may hold the key to early cancer detection. Telomeres are protective caps on the end of chromosomes.
As cells divide and multiply, telomeres become shorter to make up for added chromosomes, a process which may lead to disease(2) and, as researchers are discovering, may also be important in understanding the development of cancer in the body.
Researchers noted distinct patterns in the telomeres of people who had received a formal cancer diagnosis. The patterns suggest that cancer can essentially “hijack” the cell’s aging process. In general, telomeres can look 15 years older in people developing cancer, when compared to the telomeres of people who are not developing cancer(3).
“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” said study leader Dr. Lifang Hou.
Dr. Hou believes that, because there was a strong relationship between patterns observed in a wide variety of cancers, “…with the right testing these procedures could be used to eventually diagnose a wide variety of cancers.”(4)
The Next Steps
The team on the study hopes that the information they discovered will eventually lead scientists to be able to stop the hijacking process that happens when cancer development begins.
To do that, they first need to figure out how the hijacking happens. Hou and her colleagues hope to expand their research to include women and people of a wider variety of ethnicity, to see how different bodies are affected by the process.
In addition, they also want to expand their studies to look at traditional cancer risk factors – environment and lifestyle factors, for example – and how hey affect telomeres.
Expanding The Research
Other research on telomeres has provided even more insight into how telomeres are affected by and can indicate disease risk.
A study published in the journal Nature Genetics reports that certain genetic causes can make the length of some peoples’ telomeres vary – something which can predispose individuals to certain pathological diseases(5).
Scientists have faced difficulty in studying the relationship between telomeres and cancer prior to these studies.
One of the difficulties researchers have faced is the fact that cancer treatment itself can lead to telomere shortening, which has led to previous studies being somewhat inconsistent.
Scientists have struggled to find causal information linking telomere shortening – but with these new studies coming out, many are hopeful that this research may lead to earlier cancer detection for patients.