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February 27, 2006

Scientists Hunting Early Signs Of Cancer To Improve Outcome

Topics: Medicine

[Click image to enlarge: Continuum of change. Gray arrows indicate sequence of events from exposure to clinical disease. Yellow lines indicate the influence of individual susceptibility and other factors on steps of the disease process (EHP).]

There are approximately 500,000 cancer-related deaths annually in the United States. Scientists believe that as many as 80% of those deaths could be prevented due to the fact that most malignancies are a result of external factors rather than inherent biological conditions. With recent advances in molecular biology, a new field that combines highly sensitive and specific techniques for detecting early damage associated with cancer has emerged. By combining knowledge about external factors related to lifestyle and environmental or occupational exposure to chemicals with knowledge of how genetic differences cause variations in human responses to environmental pollutants, scientists are developing a better understanding of questions such as why some smokers get cancer but others do not, why certain groups of people have a higher incidence of cancer after exposure to a toxicant and others do not, and why certain women are more prone to develop breast cancer than others. Scientists using "biomarkers of susceptibility" will be able to identify risks and prevent adverse health effects through prevention and intervention strategies.

As an example in which this new field of research may make a difference, nearly all of the 30,000 Americans diagnosed annually with pancreatic cancer die within 12 months. The early symptoms of back pain and indigestion are so vague that most patients have no idea that they have cancer, and by the time it's detected, the disease has usually spread to the point that it is untreatable. But now Michael Hollingsworth, a University of Nebraska researcher, thinks he has a lead on what could eventually be a simple blood test that could alert doctors to pancreatic cancer early enough to treat it.

Hollingsworth has found that the disease increases levels of proteins called mucins, and the detection of increased levels may be a warning signal that someone has a developing case of pancreatic cancer. who is measuring mucins in the lab to test his theory.

Hollingsworth is part of this new trend in the fight against cancer: the search for "biomarkers," specific molecules - usually proteins or genetic material - that offer early warning signs of disease. Rather than looking for ways to attack cancer once it's established, biomarker researchers want to catch it when it is more susceptible to treatment.

Posted by Richard at February 27, 2006 10:31 PM

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