Researchers analyze telomeres to predict cancer risk

Researchers analyze telomeres to predict cancer risk

Science moves at such a rapid pace today that it can be hard for the average person to keep up. Even if you do peruse the tech headlines everyday, you might feel like going back to get your Ph.D. just so you can understand what they’re saying. However, when researchers make breakthroughs that could drastically change how we treat certain diseases like cancer, it’s worth your time to pay attention.

According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Northwestern and Harvard Universities and published in the journal EBioMedicine, the lifecycle of cellular structures known as telomeres might predict cancer several years earlier than previously possible. By studying the changing length of these telomeres, the researchers believe cancer treatments can start well before negative symptoms present themselves, but if you’re serious about cell health, it might make sense to keep your telomeres in perfect shape regardless.

How cells divide is one of the least well known but most important facets of overall health.Back to biology class
Before you explore what went into this most recent breakthrough in telomere study, it might make sense to go over why these microscopic structures are so important to cell health in the first place. In fact, telomeres play such an critical role in the life cycle of healthy cells that skimming over the science behind them might be a grave mistake.

While humans live well into their 70s, 80s and beyond nowadays, the cells in individual bodies don’t. Instead of dying off, your cells are continuously replicating and dividing themselves to create near-identical copies of the mother cell. What drives this process? A million smaller ones, but when it comes time for the duplicated DNA of the original cell to be copied over, it’s telomeres, small caps on the end of cellular chromosomal material, that do the dirty work of pulling each new genome over into the new cell.

When this process goes right, you don’t even notice it. However, when telomeres are disrupted through genetic anomalies and even poor nutrition, the new cells could have imperfections in their DNA, which researchers think could lead to health problems and aging later in life.

Take care of telomeres
Before the Northwestern and Harvard scientists began their most recent study, other researchers looked at the state of cellular telomeres before, during or after cancer diagnoses, but Lifang Huo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine and cancer epidemiology at Northwestern, and her team were the first to look at telomere changes over several years.

“Three to four years prior to most diagnoses, telomeres stop shrinking.”

Instead of taking snapshots of cellular telomeres at distinct points in cancer patients’ lives, Huo monitored the changing lengths of the structures over a 13-year stretch. In total, 792 patients were included in the study, and different iterations of cancer, such as prostate, skin and lung cases, were represented in the patient population.

After analyzing the data, Huo found that telomeres exhibit a characteristic rapid shortening in the cells of people who would later develop cancer. However, roughly three to four years prior to most diagnoses, the high-speed shrinking of these structures ceased. If researchers are able to track these changes, Huo believes cancer treatments can be started well before the disease reaches more dangerous later stages.

“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” Huo 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.”

Huo also noted that, because telomeres naturally shorten by almost imperceptible degrees every time a cell divides, halting this process may yield dividends in the fields of disease prevention.

While cancer and other diseases are being shown to have a more direct link to telomeres than previously thought, scientists have known for decades that these DNA-moving structures are also tied to aging. With so much riding on the health of telomeres, shouldn’t you be doing everything you can to keep them in good shape?