Can a set of blood proteins predict colon, breast and other cancers?

Can a set of blood proteins predict colon, breast and other cancers?Share on Pinterest
Researchers have discovered a link between more than 1,000 blood proteins and 19 different forms of cancer. Image credit: Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images.
  • Two new studies investigate possible associations between thousands of blood plasma proteins and a range of cancers.
  • A significant number of proteins appear linked to cancers that went undiagnosed for 7 years after blood samples were taken, raising the possibility of a cancer early warning system.
  • With so many proteins, so many cancers, and the complex pathogenesis of these cancers, the study represents a first step toward a better understanding of plasma proteins and cancers.

Two new studies from Oxford Population Health at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom investigated associations between thousands of blood plasma proteins and a range of cancers.

The first study, published in Natural communications on May 15, discovered 371 plasma protein markers of cancer risk. Of these, 107 were associated with cancers that were not formally diagnosed until 7 years later, suggesting a potential opportunity for early detection and treatment.

The second study — published in Natural communications earlier, on April 29, associations were observed between 40 plasma proteins and various common cancers.

The authors’ hope is that this could help pave the way for detecting and treating cancers early in their development, and perhaps even preventing them from occurring in the first place.

With data from the UK Biobank, the statistical links between 1,463 plasma proteins and 19 cancer types in 503,317 adults aged 39 to 73 were the target of the first study. The second searches for associations between 2,047 proteins and nine types of cancer in 300,000 people from the British Biobank.

The researchers also explored possible reasons why the proteins were not associated with cancer.

The researchers used a discipline called proteomics, which studies proteins wherever they are found in the body, in this case in blood plasma. Proteomics involves physics and biochemistry, computer science, genetics and bioinformatics.

Proteins are ubiquitous in our bodies, in blood serum, in muscles, skin, bones, hair, urine and elsewhere. We each carry at least 10,000 different proteins.

The study represents a first step in understanding the relationship between plasma proteins and cancer. Definitive determination of specific plasma protein levels that may signify or reflect cancer is beyond the scope of current research.

The first study found potential links between plasma proteins and increased risk of liver, digestive and gastrointestinal cancers, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as colorectal, lung, kidney, brain, of the stomach, esophagus, endometrium and blood.

The second study observed links to triple negative breast cancer, bladder cancer, lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.

“Some other links are also very interesting,” said one of the studies’ co-authors, Joshua Atkins, PhD, BBmedSci, a senior genomic epidemiologist at the University of Oxford.

“Proteins that are not responsible for cancer development but are a consequence of it may provide leads for detecting cancers at an earlier stage, when treatment may be more effective,” Atkins noted.

Richard Reitherman, MD, medical director of breast imaging at MemorialCare Breast Center at Orange Coast Medical Center, California, who was not involved in the studies, told Medical news today that:

“These publications demonstrate the association – not the cause or existence – of specific proteins and their correlation with known common cancers. This level of basic research is designed to better understand how specific proteins are linked to human cancers.

Still, “disruption of these processes can lead to disease,” Atkins said, “including cancer.” For some proteins, higher blood levels are linked to higher cancer risk, while others may have a protective effect, such that higher levels are linked to lower risk.

Atkins also noted that his team is currently working to understand what protein levels should be of concern. It can take some time.

David SB Hoon, PhD, professor and director of the Genomic Sequencing Center at St. John’s Cancer Institute, California – who was also not involved in the studies – pointed out, as an example, that determining healthy cholesterol levels lipoprotein “took thousands of dollars.” and thousands of tests, male, female, before finally clinical chemistry establishes limits between what is truly positive, what is dangerous and what is basically your standard? »

Hoon also expressed concern that the research might not represent adults of all ages. “In the paper,” he says, “most of these patients are in their sixth or seventh decade. So you’re going to have a lot of proteins that we call high risk for cancer because they start to show up as we age.

“These are proteins that we all have,” Atkins said.

Reitherman explained that “(our) blood system is the obligatory middleman, a complex underground system that connects all the body’s organs and functions to each other. »

“As in a subway, passengers – e.g. proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, DNA, RNA, intact cells and cellular subparticles, oxygen, carbon dioxide, minerals – enter into the blood system,” Reitherman said. “They are transported to other locations in the body to be used in myriad complex processes of metabolism, respiration, regulation of cell growth, or about to be eliminated.”

He cited insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas into the blood and “then diffuses into every body tissue available to us, ultimately regulating many cellular functions, including our blood sugar.”

The argument against aggressively manipulating levels of proteins of concern goes beyond the beginnings of this research, Atkins said.

“Since proteins play an important role in many key processes in the body, disruption of protein levels or function could well have detrimental effects,” he warned.

He noted that the FGFR3 protein is linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer, but that decreased levels are linked to an increased risk of osteoarthritis.

Atkins said:

“Most current drugs target proteins in one form or another, and we already have good risk profiles for approved drugs. For new proteins we may want to target, this new research using genetic methods allows us to predict any dangers or side effects that might arise and prioritize which targets to hit.

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