Genetic changes can predict cancer up to 13 years in the future, according to new research.
Harvard and Northwestern University discovered that tiny but significant changes are already happening in the body more than a decade before cancer is diagnosed.
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.
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.
The research was published in the online journal Ebiomedicine.