A new understanding of the structure of DNA may someday allow your doctor to tell if you’re going to be stricken by mesothelioma long before it happens — perhaps as much as a decade ahead of time.
Super-early warning would be a massive advantage because it might give you time to make medical decisions and lifestyle changes that could delay mesothelioma’s onset or even entirely prevent it.
The new understanding of DNA at the root of this potential diagnostic breakthrough involves telomeres. Telomeres are caps at each end of a chromosome.
Some suggest that it helps to think of telomeres as being the equivalent of the little plastic sheaths at each end of a shoelace — their job is to keep the fiber strands making up the shoelace from unraveling.
Huge Potential Boon to Diagnosing Mesothelioma
Writing in the journal Biomedicine, researchers from Harvard University and Northwestern University discovered that telomeres shorten with age.
Like shoelace sheaths, telomeres wear down over time and become less able to keep the chromosome from fraying. The worse the fraying, the more vulnerable the body becomes to cancer and a whole host of other diseases.
The researchers figured out that really short telomeres are a sign of coming illness. In fact, they’ve recognized that, when the shortening follows a particular pattern, cancer is lurking in the future.
According to the researchers, if there is a period where the shortening accelerates and then suddenly stops, that tells them that cancer is likely to onset approximately three or four years later.
Mesothelioma Early Warning Signs Needed
The next step for the researchers would be to try to determine whether there is a biomarker associated with this particular shortening pattern.
If there is such a biomarker, scientists would then have a means of devising a blood test to permit your doctor to very easily determine the condition of your telomeres.
The researchers caution that this is still largely theoretical stuff and will require much more investigation before there is a practical way to use telomere status as a cancer predictor.
The researchers arrived at their findings by measuring at selected intervals the telomeres of 800 individuals over a span of 13 years. Cancers of various types eventually turned up in 135 of these individuals.
It appeared to the researchers that these cancer victims’ telomeres had shortened in a way appreciably different from the way the shortening occurred in everyone else.
The researchers contend that theirs is the first study to monitor telomere length for years prior to patients receiving a cancer diagnosis.
The importance of monitoring telomeres prior to diagnosis is that, once cancer onsets, the behavior of those DNA structures becomes unpredictable.
“Cancer hijacks the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body,” the researchers explained.
In other words, as soon as you’ve got cancer, the condition of your telomeres become useless as a gauge to tell doctors anything.
Of course, if you’ve got mesothelioma, there’s no longer any need to predict when it’s going to strike since it already has.