Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, which prevent DNA damage and fusion with other chromosomes. Normally, after several cell divisions, the telomeres become shortened (but some are replenished by an enzyme).
For the study, scientists took multiple measurements of telomeres over a 13-year period in 792 persons, 135 of whom were eventually diagnosed with different types of cancer, including prostate, skin, lung and leukaemia.
Researchers found that people who developed cancer had telomeres that were shorter than normal, with significantly more wear and tear than those who didn't develop cancer. In some cases they also looked 15 years older than their age.
Dr. Lifang Hou, the lead study author and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is optimistic that understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer.
He explained that, cancer cells despite their rapid cell division found a way to evade telomere shortening and flourish in the body. If this mechanism of evasion is identified, then targeted treatments can be developed to destroy only the cancer cells.
The study was published in the online journal Ebiomedicine