Will Even a Cholesterol Test Help Identify Cancer?


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By Meredith Salisbury

Early detection is one of the most effective ways to beat cancer. That’s why some recent studies, in which scientists detected it in people long before symptoms began, have cancer researchers so excited. The coolest part? These scientists weren’t even looking for signs of cancer. DNA-based detection tools have gotten sensitive enough that it now appears possible to identify precancerous cells.

For years, people thought cancer was like a toggle switch: a good cell goes bad, and flip! Cancer. If that cell divides rapidly enough, and successfully evades the immune system, it grows into a tumor. Newer research has shown that the path from a healthy cell to a cancerous one is actually long and winding. Cells must go through a series of mutations over time, slowly transforming from normal to slightly aberrant to full-on cancer.

Understanding this process creates a major opportunity to spot problem cells and intervene before they make it to the lethal final stage. But making something of that opportunity depends on having technology sensitive enough to find these rogue cells–and coming up with a way to eradicate them without harming their healthy neighbors.

That’s why these new studies have cancer researchers so fired up. A team led by Steven McCarroll from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard took blood samples from more than 12,000 Swedish people and sequenced their genes, looking for molecular indicators linked to schizophrenia. As they analyzed the data, though, they kept bumping into mutations known to be associated with blood cancers. This was puzzling, as none of the people had blood cancer.

McCarroll’s team stuck with it, following health outcomes of these people for as long as seven years. Of the people who went on to develop some form of blood cancer during that time, more than —> Read More