Possible New Test May Predict Cancer up to 13 Years Before it Develops

A possible new test that can predict with 100% accuracy whether a person will develop cancer up to 13 years in the future.


Harvard and Northwestern University discovered that tiny but significant changes are already happening in the body more than a decade before cancer is diagnosed. They found telomeres (sequences of DNA on ends of chromosomes; prevent DNA damage) age faster and then stop aging for a few years in the period leading up to a cancer diagnosis. Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may be predictive biomarker for cancer

Insurance companies warned if test showed 100% probability over a certain number of years then it could increase policy premiums. People with cancer diagnoses could be priced out ofinsurance marker. However if it was shown that diagnosing earlier could prevent cancer then that could bring down premiums

The Data

  • Investigated how telomeres change over time as opposed to taking just a single snapshot.
  • Found distinct pattern in the changing length of blood telomeres, which can predict cancer years before diagnosis
  • Scientists took multiple measurements of telomeres over a 13-year period
  • Involved 792 people, 135 of which were eventually diagnosed with various cancers (prostate, skin, lung and leukemia)

The Results

  1. Telomeres aged much faster (more rapid loss of length in people who were developing but not yet diagnosed with cancer)
  2. Telomeres in people who went on to develop cancer looked up to 15 years older than people who were not developing cancer
  3. Later found aging process stopped 3-4 years before cancer diagnosis.

Samadi's Take

Scientists consider blood telomeres to be a marker of biological age, but they have also been looking at how they change in people developing cancer. Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides. The older a person is, the more times each cell has divided, and the shorter their telomeres. Because cancer cells divide and grow rapidly, scientists would expect the cell would get so short it would self-destruct. Study discovered that’s not what happens. Researchers found that the cancer has ‘hijacked’ the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body 

Researchers are trying to identify how cancer hijacks the cell so that treatments could be developed to cause cancer cells to self-destruct without harming healthy cells. Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer.

Researchers 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. Although many people may not want to know that they will develop cancer in the future, it could allow them to make lifestyle changes to lower their risk.