Typically, BRCA mutations can help predict a women's risk of breast cancer. But telomeres, structures on the ends of chromosomes, might be an alternative way to do this. Scientists believe that when stunted in a certain kind of cell, they point to a heightened risk of contracting the disease.
A team from the Indiana University School of Medicine and the British Columbia Cancer Agency's Terry Fox Laboratory made the finding, which is detailed in the journal Stem Cell Reports. The International Business Times highlights their work.
As the article notes, stunted telomeres appear to be linked to a number of different cancer cells. Late last fall, for example, University of Wisconsin scientists concluded that shortened telomeres in white blood cells pointed to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. In the case of the Indiana University/British Columbia Cancer Agency work, however, they made a similar link by looking at stunted telomeres in luminal progenitor cells. What they found, according to the write-up: The shorter telomeres are common in these cells, as is large amounts of DNA damage.
The story explains that telomeres at normal length help keep genes stable, and also that the DNA damage in luminal progenitor cells and their shortened telomeres may very well be ground zero to the development of breast cancer.
Much more research must be done here. But the Indiana University side of the research, according to the story, wants to develop blood and tissue tests that would screen for short telomeres leading to the condition known as telomere fusion--in which chromosomes improperly join together.
Ideally, a blood test could do this for specific cell types, the story notes, though it is difficult to accomplish this right now. But some form of blood and tissue test would be another way to gauge breast cancer risk that goes beyond genetic tests designed to search for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. After all, patients without BRCA mutations could still come down with cancer. So an eventual diagnostic test that searches for the shortened telomere biomarker would be beneficial to diagnostics and help boost chances of a definitive diagnosis, which in turn can facilitate a more personalized treatment plan.