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Two separate studies by researchers at Oxford Population Health, England, published in Nature Communications have identified proteins in blood samples that could predict cancer development up to seven years before it is diagnosed. In total, the team found 618 proteins that are linked to 19 different cancer types, of which 107 were identified in a group of people whose blood was collected at least seven years before they were diagnosed with cancer.

“To save more lives from cancer, we need to better understand what happens at the earliest stages of the disease. Data from thousands of people with cancer has revealed really exciting insights into how the proteins in our blood can affect our risk of cancer,” said joint first author Keren Papier, a senior nutritional epidemiologist with Oxford Population Health. “Now we need to study these proteins in depth to see which ones could be reliably used for prevention.”

The first study used the blood samples of more than 44,000 people who contributed to the UK Biobank. Of that total, more than 4,900 people subsequently went on to receive a cancer diagnosis. Taking a proteomic approach, the investigators queried a set of 1,463 proteins from the blood sample of each person, then compared these from people who remained cancer free to the proteins found in the samples of those who were later diagnosed with cancer. This comparison found 182 proteins that differed in the blood of people three years before their diagnosis.

The second study used genetic data from more than 300,000 cancer cases to find the proteins involved in cancer development and identified those that could be targeted by new treatments. This analysis yielded 40 proteins that influence a person’s risk of developing nine different types of cancer.

The researchers noted that altering these proteins could have beneficial effect, but they warn against this potentially leading to unintended adverse drug reactions.

“The genes we are born with, and the proteins made from them, are hugely influential in how cancer starts and grows,” noted Joshua Atkins, senior genomic epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and joint first author of the first study. “Thanks to the thousands of people who gave blood samples to UK Biobank, we are building a much more comprehensive picture of how genes influence cancer development over many years.”

Further research suggested by these findings include developing a better understanding of the exact roles each of the identified proteins play in driving the emergence of cancer. Research is also needed to determine which proteins could be most reliably identified to predict cancer development by testing, the development of clinical testing methods to reveal these proteins, and ultimately which current drugs or drugs in development could target these proteins.

“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,” said senior author of both studies Prof. Ruth Travis, senior molecular epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health. “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.”

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