Telomere Testing May Predict Health Risks Years in Advance
The length of telomeres — protective caps at the end of chromosomes often compared to plastic tips on shoelaces — could be an important predictor of increased danger for a range of disorders, from cancer to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
What’s more, telomere testing may identify patients at risk for certain diseases years before diagnosis, independent of other known factors, new research suggests. These findings build on Nobel Prize-winning science: the discovery of how telomeres and the enzyme telomerase protect chromosomes from degrading during cell division.
Telomeres shorten as a cell ages, with such factors as oxidative stress and chronic inflammation speeding up the process. Telomere length has also been linked to life expectancy, with a new study of 64,637 people, published in Journal of the National Cancer Institute, reporting that over a 22-year period, participants with the shortest telomeres had a 40 percent higher death rate, compared to those with the longest.
An advanced blood test, Telomere Analysis Technology ™ (TAT ™) — offers insights into how fast patients’ bodies are aging at the cellular level. It’s the only commercially available telomere test that reports the percentage of short telomeres, the most crucial information in telomere assessment.
Telomere Changes: A New Biomarker to Predict Cancer
Measuring blood telomeres may predict which patients are headed for cancer, many years before their actual diagnosis, according to a new study by scientists from Harvard University and Northwestern University, published in EBioMedicine.
Over a 13-year period, the team repeatedly measured the length of the blood telomeres of 792 people, 135 of whom were eventually diagnosed with various forms of cancer, including prostate, lung, skin, colon, leukemia, and others.
Compared to cancer-free participants, those who developed the disease initially exhibited rapid shrinkage of their telomeres. In some cases, their telomeres appeared up to 15 years “older” than the person’s chronological age. The scientists also found that this accelerated shrinkage stopped three to four years before the cancer diagnosis.
“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” said Dr. Lifang Hou, lead study author and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“Because we saw a strong relationship in the pattern across a wide variety of cancers, with the right testing these procedures could be used to eventually diagnose a wide variety of cancers,” added Dr. Hou.
Short Telomeres Forecast Higher Risk for Diabetes and Heart Disease
Many other peer-reviewed studies also demonstrate the predictive power of telomere blood testing. For example, a 2014 study of 2,328 initially healthy people, published in the journal Diabetes, found that those with the shortest telomeres were nearly twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes over the next five years, independent of all other known risk factors.
Similarly, a 2014 meta-analysis of 24 studies with 43,725 participants, published in British Medical Journal, concluded that the length of telomeres is an independent risk factor for coronary artery disease (CAD), clogged arteries that could lead to heart attack. Participants with the shortest telomeres had a 54 percent higher relative risk, versus those with the longest.
Among people who already have arterial disease, telomere length may also predict their outcomes, according to a study of 780 patients with stable CAD published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. Even after adjustment for clinical, inflammatory and echocardiographic risk factors, patients in lowest quartile of telomere length had a significantly higher risk for hospitalization for heart failure and death during the 4.4 year-study than patients in the highest quartile.
Conversely, other recent studies suggest that following a Mediterranean diet and an excellent lifestyle are associated with longer telomere length, which in turn may help reduce risk for heart disease and other chronic, age-related ailments.