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Signal on Telomeres May Point to Cancer Risk Earlier

At issue is the shifting status of telomeres in the blood

WEDNESDAY, May 6, 2015 (HealthDay News) — For the first time, researchers have identified a pattern of change in DNA that may signal the development of cancer long before a standard diagnosis can be made. The study findings were published in EBioMedicine.

The current study revealed that telomeres start to age at a faster pace than normal in people who eventually develop cancer. The study authors said that telomeres belonging to future cancer patients may shorten in length to such a degree that they resemble telomeres belonging to people 15 years older. “Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” lead author Lifang Hou, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said in a university news release.

In all, the study team spent 13 years tracking telomere measurements among 792 people. Eventually, 135 were diagnosed with a variety of different cancers. Investigators found that while telomeres notably shortened well in advance of a cancer diagnosis, that shortening process actually came to a stop roughly three to four years before the cancer diagnosis.

Exactly why remains unclear. But the team suggested that the point at which shrinkage halts may coincide with the point at which a patient’s as yet-undiagnosed cancer cells start to take control. “We saw the inflection point at which rapid telomere shortening stabilizes,” Hou explained. “We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body.”

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