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Blood Proteins Could Warn of Cancer Seven Years before Diagnosis

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 16 May 2024
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Image: Blood proteins may be able to predict risk of cancer more than seven years before it is diagnosed (Photo courtesy of Oxford Population Health)
Image: Blood proteins may be able to predict risk of cancer more than seven years before it is diagnosed (Photo courtesy of Oxford Population Health)

Two studies have identified proteins in the blood that could potentially alert individuals to the presence of cancer more than seven years before the disease is clinically diagnosed. Researchers found 618 proteins associated with 19 different types of cancer, including 107 proteins in individuals whose blood samples were taken at least seven years prior to their cancer diagnosis. These findings suggest that these proteins could play a role in the very early stages of cancer development, potentially allowing for earlier detection than currently possible. In the future, this knowledge might enable the disease to be treated at much earlier stages or even completely prevented.

Cancer Research UK (Oxford, UK) is supporting this research as part of its broader initiative to detect the earliest signs of cancer and potentially prevent the disease through scientific advances. In these studies, a research team from Oxford Population Health (Oxford, UK) employed a sophisticated method known as proteomics. This technique enables the analysis of extensive sets of proteins in tissue samples simultaneously, facilitating an understanding of how proteins interact and identifying significant protein differences between tissue samples. In the initial study, the researchers analyzed blood samples from over 44,000 participants in the UK Biobank, which included more than 4,900 individuals who were later diagnosed with cancer. By applying proteomics, the team examined 1,463 proteins from each blood sample, comparing the protein profiles of those who were and were not later diagnosed with cancer to identify proteins linked to increased cancer risk. They also identified 182 proteins that showed differences in the blood up to three years before a cancer diagnosis was made.

In the second study, the researchers delved into genetic data from over 300,000 cancer cases to explore which blood proteins are implicated in cancer development and could potentially be targets for new treatments. They identified 40 proteins in the blood that appeared to affect the risk of developing nine different types of cancer. Modifying these proteins could alter a person's cancer risk, although changes might also cause unintended side effects. The researchers emphasize the need for further studies to clarify the precise roles these proteins play in the development of cancer, determine which proteins are most reliable for testing, develop clinical tests to detect these proteins, and identify potential drugs that could target these proteins.

"To be able to prevent cancer, we need to understand the factors driving the earliest stages of its development. These studies are important because they provide many new clues about the causes and biology of multiple cancers, including insights into what’s happening years before a cancer is diagnosed,” said Professor Ruth Travis, Senior Molecular Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and a senior author of both studies, which were recently published in Nature Communications. “We now have technology that can look at thousands of proteins across thousands of cancer cases, identifying which proteins have a role in the development of specific cancers, and which might have effects that are common to multiple cancer types.” 

Related Links:
Oxford Population Health
Cancer Research UK

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