Telomere length predicts cancer risk

April 3, 2017, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white). Credit: PD-NASA; PD-USGOV-NASA

The length of the telomere "caps" of DNA that protect the tips of chromosomes may predict cancer risk and be a potential target for future therapeutics, University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) scientists will report today at the AACR Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Longer-than-expected telomeres—which are composed of repeated sequences of DNA and are shortened every time a cell divides—are associated with an increased risk, according to research led by scientists from Pitt and Singapore.

"Telomeres and cancer clearly have a complex relationship," said Jian-Min Yuan, M.D., Ph.D., who holds the Arnold Palmer Endowed Chair in Cancer Prevention at UPCI and is lead or senior author on two studies being presented at AACR. "Our hope is that by understanding this relationship, we may be able to predict which people are most likely to develop certain cancers so they can take preventive measures and perhaps be screened more often, as well as develop therapies to help our DNA keep or return its telomeres to a healthy length."

Yuan and his colleagues analyzed blood samples and health data on more than 28,000 Chinese people enrolled in the Singapore Chinese Health Study, which has followed the health outcomes of participants since 1993. As of the end of 2015, 4,060 participants had developed cancer.

Participants were divided into five groups, based on how much longer their telomeres were than expected. The group with the longest telomeres had 33 percent higher odds of developing any cancer than the group with the shortest telomeres, after taking into account the effect of age, sex, education and smoking habits. That group also had 66 percent higher odds of developing lung cancer, 39 percent higher odds of developing breast cancer, 55 percent higher odds of developing prostate cancer and 37 percent higher odds of developing colorectal cancer. Of all the cancers, pancreatic had the largest increase in incidence related to longer telomeres, with participants in the highest one-fifth for at nearly 2.6 times the odds of developing pancreatic cancer, compared to those in the lowest one-fifth for length. Only the risk of liver cancer went down with longer telomeres.

For three cancers, the risk was greatest for both the groups with extreme short and extreme long telomeres—creating a "U-shaped" risk curve. Participants in the group with the shortest telomere length had 63 percent higher odds of stomach cancer, 72 percent higher odds of bladder cancer and 115 percent higher odds of leukemia than the group in the middle of the curve. The group with the longest telomeres had 55 percent higher odds of stomach cancer, 117 percent higher odds of bladder cancer and 68 percent higher odds of leukemia.

"We had the idea for this study more than seven years ago, but it took the laboratory three months to finish quantifying telomere length for just 100 samples, which was not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions," said Yuan, also a professor of epidemiology at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health. "Not even a decade later, we've been able to run nearly 30,000 samples in a year and draw these really robust insights, showing how far technology has come. Even more complicated will be linking telomere length to genome-wide analyses, which is on the horizon. We're on the cusp of gaining a truly remarkable understanding of the complicated biological phenomena that lead to cancer."

Explore further: Is there a link between telomere length and cancer?

Related Stories

Is there a link between telomere length and cancer?

March 23, 2017
Telomeres are regions of repetitive DNA at the end of human chromosomes, which protect the end of the chromosome from damage. Whilst shorter telomeres are hypothesized biological markers of older age and have been linked ...

New study identifies possible predictor for women's longevity

December 7, 2016
Death and taxes have long been said to be the only two things guaranteed in life. Exactly when someone will die, in most instances, remains a mystery. A new study, however, identifies one possible predictor—specifically, ...

Blood chromosome differences are linked to pancreatic cancer

October 23, 2012
A new study shows that a blood marker is linked to pancreatic cancer, according to a study published today by scientists at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center and Mayo Clinic.

Scientists discover master regulator of cellular aging

January 12, 2017
Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have discovered a protein that fine-tunes the cellular clock involved in aging.

Telomere changes predict cancer

April 30, 2015
A distinct pattern in the changing length of blood telomeres, the protective end caps on our DNA strands, can predict cancer many years before actual diagnosis, according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine in collaboration ...

Recommended for you

Researchers identify blood biomarkers that may help diagnose, confirm concussions

April 20, 2018
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, Georgetown University and the University of Rochester have found that specific small molecules in blood plasma may be useful in determining whether someone has sustained ...

Stem-cell technology aids 3-D printed cartilage repair

April 20, 2018
Novel stem-cell technology developed at Swinburne will be used to grow the massive number of stem cells required for a new hand-held 3-D printer that will enable surgeons to create patient-specific bone and cartilage.

DOR protein deficiency favors the development of obesity

April 20, 2018
Obesity is a world health problem. Excessive accumulation of fat tissue (adipose tissue) increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and some types of cancer. However, some obese individuals are less ...

Defect in debilitating neurodegenerative disease reversed in mouse nerves

April 19, 2018
Scientists have developed a new drug compound that shows promise as a future treatment for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited, often painful neurodegenerative condition that affects nerves in the hands, arms, feet ...

Enduring cold temperatures alters fat cell epigenetics

April 19, 2018
A new study in fat cells has revealed a molecular mechanism that controls how lifestyle choices and the external environment affect gene expression. This mechanism includes potential targets for next-generation drug discovery ...

Molecule that dilates blood vessels hints at new way to treat heart disease

April 19, 2018
Americans die of heart or cardiovascular disease at an alarming rate. In fact, heart attacks, strokes and related diseases will kill an estimated 610,000 Americans this year alone. Some medications help, but to better tackle ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.