Chromosome cap length predicts pancreatic cancer risk

Measuring the lengths of telomeres, the caps on the end of chromosomes, could contribute to a blood test to diagnose pancreatic cancer, or even predict people's risk of developing the disease, according to research published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

Telomeres are stretches of repeating genetic code on the ends of chromosomes, stopping them getting damaged or sticking together (think of the little plastic tags on the end of shoelaces that stop them fraying). As we age, telomeres get shorter, with causes including smoking, stress, inflammation and diabetes.

The researchers compared the lengths of the telomeres in white blood cells (peripheral blood leukocytes or PBLs) in 499 people with pancreatic cancer, and 963 people without cancer. They found a direct relationship, showing that the shorter the telomere, the higher the risk of pancreatic cancer. Shortened telomeres have been linked with age-related disease and cancer, but according to the researchers, this is the first time that the length of telomeres in blood cells has been directly connected with pancreatic cancer.

"This suggests a new avenue to identify those with pancreatic cancer or those at risk of developing the cancer in the future,'' says Halcyon Skinner of the University of Wisconsin.

However, as they are linked with a number of cancers, not just pancreatic cancer, it's unlikely that this will be a standalone test, and will probably have to be combined with other markers. The researchers also suggest that treatment that prevents telomere-lengthening may possibly prevent pancreatic cancer.

- read the press release
- see the abstract