A new study has found that scientists may soon be able to diagnose cancer even before we develop it. This would be wonderful as it would mean people could be treated so much earlier. It would radically improve survival rates.
Cancer still causes so many people so much pain. I’m sure you’ve also been touched by this illness. An estimated 150,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia this year. Around one in two Australian men and women will be diagnosed with cancer by the time they are 85. The most common cancers in Australia are prostate, breast, bowel, melanoma and lung cancer. These account for more than 60 per cent of cancer deaths. Cancer costs more than $4.5 billion in direct health system costs every year. In 2016-18, $252 million in funding was provided for cancer research projects and programs in Australia.
Early signs of cancer can appear years earlier
But this new research shows that cancer could be diagnosed years or even decades before symptoms arrive. These scientists looked at samples from more than 2,500 tumours and 38 cancers.
The international study was carried out as part of the Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project, the most comprehensive study of cancer genes ever.
“What’s extraordinary is how some of the genetic changes appear to have occurred many years before diagnosis, long before any other signs that a cancer may develop, and perhaps even in apparently normal tissue,” Co-author Clemency Jolly told The Guardian. Prof Clemency is based at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
The discovery that cancer can be found in our genes many years before the first symptoms turn up will not change cancer screening in the immediate future. But it does mean that in coming years those most at risk could be found much sooner.
“Unlocking these patterns means it should now be possible to develop new diagnostic tests that pick up signs of cancer much earlier,” said Peter Van Loo, another co-lead author, also of the Crick Institute. “There is a window of opportunity.”
What are genes?
Genes are chemicals that carry information that decides what characteristics we inherit from our family. They determine traits such as the colour of your hair, how tall you are, and the colour of your eyes.Genes also often decide whether or not you will get cancer. They consist of DNA and are part of a larger structure called the chromosome.
The study revealed that about half of the earliest mutations for cancer occurred in just nine genes. We carry around 22,000. It might be possible to one day pick up mutations using so-called liquid biopsies – genetic tests that find mutations in DNA in our blood.
“One could try and identify these [early mutations] and do some kind of very sensitive imaging on patients that were positive,” Dr Van Loo said. “Or even further into the future, one could conceive of methods that really targeted these cells and made them light up in an imaging approach or just kill them in one go. That’s a bit science fiction at the moment.”
Only a small number of cell mutations lead to cancer
The researchers analysed and sequenced nearly 2,700 whole genomes of cancer samples and mapped mutations in 38 different types of tumours. While human cells undergo billions of mutations, only a small number of mutations lead to cancer.
Researchers found gene mutations occurred ‘particularly early’ in ovarian cancer as well as in two types of brain tumours. Breast cancer can also be detectable through blood tests five years before it appears, according to the scientists. The study is published in The Nature journal.
The advantages of diagnosing early
Why am I so impressed by this break-through? Basically, finding and treating cancer early can save lives. Cancer that’s diagnosed at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread, is more likely to be treated successfully. If cancer spreads, treatment becomes more difficult, and a person’s chances of surviving decrease. Spotting cancer early can make a real difference. As these statistics show.
More than nine in 10 bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for more than five years if diagnosed at the earliest stage.
More than 90 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive their disease for at least five years compared to around 15 per cent of women diagnosed with the most advanced stage of disease.
90 per cent of women diagnosed with the earliest stage ovarian cancer survive their disease for at least five years compared to around five per cent for women diagnosed with the most advanced stage of disease.
More than 80 per cent of lung cancer patients will survive for at least a year if diagnosed at the earliest stage compared to around 15 per cent for people diagnosed with the most advanced stage of disease.
Why are some cancers diagnosed late?
There can be a number of reasons for late diagnosis of cancer. Low awareness of cancer signs and symptoms can mean that people don’t realise that a symptom is important, or that they should see their doctor about it. Some people might put off seeing a doctor for many reasons, including embarrassment. Remember, this could save you so go see a doctor and tell all.
There can be delays in GPs referring patients for tests or treatments, or delays getting an appointment with a specialist. When it comes to your health, remember you’re the boss. If you do spot something unusual, tell your doctor. In most cases it won’t be cancer – but if it is, finding it early can make a real difference. It could save your life!
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