Blood test could detect cancer seven years before it develops

By Isabel Cameron

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Related tags Cancer Clinical trials Oncology Patient centricity

Proteins present in the blood may be able to predict a person's risk of developing cancer more than seven years before they are diagnosed with the disease, according to new research.

Two Cancer Research UK-funded studies from Oxford Population Health identified 618 proteins linked to 19 different types of cancer, including bowel, prostate and breast.

In addition, 107 of the proteins were found in a group of people whose blood was collected at least seven years before they were diagnosed.

The findings indicate that these proteins could be used as an early form of screening, helping to stop cancer before it starts.

Professor Ruth Travis, senior molecular epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and a senior author of both studies, said: “To be able to prevent cancer, we need to understand the factors driving the earliest stages of its development. These studies are important because they provide many new clues about the causes and biology of multiple cancers, including insights into what’s happening years before a cancer is diagnosed.

“We now have technology that can look at thousands of proteins across thousands of cancer cases, identifying which proteins have a role in the development of specific cancers, and which might have effects that are common to multiple cancer types."

Both studies, published on May 16, 2024 in Nature Communications, used a powerful technique called proteomics to find important differences in blood samples between people who did and did not go on to develop cancer. 

In the first study, researchers analysed 44,000 blood samples from UK Biobank, including over 4,900 who were later diagnosed with cancer. 

Their analysis of 1,463 proteins in each sample revealed 107 that changed at least seven years before a cancer diagnosis and 182 that changed at least three years before a cancer diagnosis. 

In the second study, the scientists looked at genetic data from more than 300,000 cancer cases to analyze which blood proteins were involved in cancer development and could be targeted by new treatments.   

They found 40 proteins in the blood that influence someone’s risk of getting nine different types of cancer.

Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, added: “Preventing cancer means looking out for the earliest warning signs of the disease. That means intensive, painstaking research to find the molecular signals we should pay closest attention to.

“Discoveries from this research are the crucial first step towards offering preventive therapies, which is the ultimate route for giving people longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer.”

Despite promising results, the investigators stress that further research is needed to find out the role proteins play in cancer develop, which ones must be tested and what drugs could target the proteins.  

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