Newly identified biomarkers may warn of cancer 7 years before symptoms set in

  • A pair of new studies investigate possible associations between thousands of blood plasma proteins and a range of cancer.
  • A significant number of proteins appeared linked to cancers that were not diagnosed for 7 years after blood samples were taken, raising the possibility of a cancer early warning system.
  • With so many proteins, so many cancers, and the complex pathogenesis of those cancers, the study represents a first step toward a greater understanding of plasma proteins and cancers.

Two new studies from Oxford Population Health at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom have investigated associations between thousands of blood plasma proteins and an array of cancers.

The first study — which appeared in Nature CommunicationsTrusted Source on May 15 — found 371 plasma protein markers of cancer risk. Of these, 107 were associated with cancers that were not formally diagnosed until 7 years later, suggesting a potential opportunity for early detection and treatment.

The second study — published in Nature CommunicationsTrusted Source a little earlier, on April 29 — observed associations between 40 plasma proteins and various commonly occurring cancers.

The authors’ hope is that this may help lead the way to detecting and treating cancers early in their development, and perhaps preventing them from occurring at all.

Can experts catch early signs of cancer?

With data from the U.K. Biobank, statistical links between 1,463 plasma proteins and 19 types of cancer in 503,317 adults aged 39 to 73 were the target of the first study. The second sought associations between 2,047 proteins and nine cancer types in 300,000 people from the U.K. Biobank.

The researchers also explored the possible reasons that proteins were not associated with cancer.

The researchers used a discipline called proteomics, which is the study of proteins, wherever they are in the body — in this case, in blood plasma. Proteomics involves physical and biochemistry, computer science, genetics, and bioinformatics.

Proteins are ubiquitous in our bodies, in blood serum, in muscle, skin, bone, hair, urine, and elsewhere. We each carry at least 10,000 different proteins.

The study represents an early step in understanding the relationship between plasma proteins and cancer. Definitively determining specific plasma protein levels that may signify, or reflect, cancer is beyond the scope of the current research.

Potential links between plasma proteins and cancer risk

The first study found potential links between plasma proteins and increased risk of cancers of the liver, digestive and gastrointestinal tracts, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as colorectallungkidneybrainstomach, esophagus, endometrium, and blood cancers.

The second study observed ties to triple-negative breast cancerbladder cancer, lung cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

“Some of the other links are quite interesting, too,” said one of the studies’ co-authors, Joshua Atkins, PhD, BBmedSci, a senior genomic epidemiologist at the University of Oxford.

“Proteins that are not causal for cancer development but are a consequence of cancer growth can provide avenues for detecting cancers at an earlier stage when treatment can be more successful,” noted Atkins.

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