The discovery of tiny but significant changes taking place in the body more than a decade before cancer was diagnosed helped researchers at Harvard and Northwestern University make the breakthrough.
Their research, published in the online journal Ebiomedicine, found protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, which prevent DNA damage were more worn down those who went on to develop cancer.
Known as telomeres, these were much shorter than they should have been and continued to get shorter until around four years before the cancer developed, when they suddenly stopped shrinking.
“Because we saw a strong relationship in the pattern across a wide variety of cancers, with the right testing these procedures could be used eventually to diagnose a wide variety of cancers,” said Dr Lifang Hou, the lead study author.
“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer….We found cancer has hijacked the telomere shortening in order to flourish in the body.”