Northwestern study may help early detection of cancer risk

Shane McKeon, Assistant Campus Editor

A finding from Northwestern Medicine might help doctors predict cancer development several years before diagnosis.

In a collaboration with Harvard University, Feinberg School of Medicine researchers examined the length of blood telomeres, located on DNA strands, to test for indications of cancer risk in a patient’s blood.

Feinberg Prof. Lifang Hou, the study’s lead author, said the discovery could help doctors test for many different cancers.

“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” Hou said in a news release. “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.”

The study looked at telomere length multiple times before diagnosis. Both cancer and its treatment can shorten telomere length, so it’s often hard for doctors to tell which shortened telomeres.

Hou said the researchers’ decision to look at telomere length more than once allowed them to see more concrete findings, something previous studies haven’t always done.

“This likely explains why the previous studies have been so inconsistent,” Hou said. “We saw the inflection point at which rapid telomere shortening stabilizes. We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body.”

The study was published in EBioMedicine.

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