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Blood Proteins Could Give Cancer Warning Seven Years Before Diagnosis

Cancer cells.
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Proteins linked to cancer can start appearing in people’s blood more than seven years before they’re diagnosed, our funded researchers have found. In the future, it’s possible doctors could use these early warning signs to find and treat cancer much earlier than they’re able to today.  

Across two studies, researchers at Oxford Population Health identified 618 proteins linked to 19 different types of cancer, including 107 proteins in a group of people whose blood was collected at least seven years before they were diagnosed. 

The findings suggest that these proteins could be involved at the very earliest stages of cancer. Intercepting them could give us a way to stop the disease developing altogether. 

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“This research brings us closer to being able to prevent cancer with targeted drugs – once thought impossible but now much more attainable,” explained Dr Karl Smith-Byrne, Senior Molecular Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health, who worked on both papers. 

For now, though, we need to do further research. The team want to find out more about the roles these proteins play in cancer development, how we can use tests to spot the most important ones, and which drugs we can use to stop them driving cancer.

Comparing blood samples with proteomics

Both studies, published today in Nature Communications, used a powerful technique called proteomics to find important differences in blood samples between people who did and did not go on to develop cancer. 

To be able to prevent cancer, we need to understand the factors driving the earliest stages of its development. These studies are important because they provide many new clues about the causes and biology of multiple cancers, including insights into what’s happening years before a cancer is diagnosed.

We now have technology that can look at thousands of proteins across thousands of cancer cases, identifying which proteins have a role in the development of specific cancers, and which might have effects that are common to multiple cancer types.

- Professor Ruth Travis, Senior Molecular Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and a senior author of both studies

In the first study, scientists analysed 44,000 blood samples collected and stored by UK Biobank, including over 4,900 samples from people who were later diagnosed with cancer. 

Their analysis of 1,463 proteins in each sample revealed 107 that changed at least seven years before a cancer diagnosis and 182 that changed at least three years before a cancer diagnosis. 

In the second study, the scientists looked at genetic data from over 300,000 cancer cases to do a deep dive into which blood proteins were involved in cancer development and could be targeted by new treatments.   

This time, they found 40 proteins in the blood that influence someone’s risk of getting nine different types of cancer. While altering these proteins may increase or decrease the chances of someone developing cancer, more research is needed to make sure targeting them with drugs doesn’t cause unintended side effects.  

Preventing cancer means looking out for the earliest warning signs of the disease. That means intensive, painstaking research to find the molecular signals we should pay closest attention to.

Discoveries from this research are the crucial first step towards offering preventive therapies, which is the ultimate route for giving people longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer.

- Dr Iain Foulkes, our Executive Director of Research and Innovation


    1. Papier K, Atkins JR, Tong TYN, et al. Identifying proteomic risk factors for cancer using prospective and exome analyses of 1463 circulating proteins and risk of 19 cancers in the UK Biobank. Nat Comm. 2024;15(1):4010. doi: 10.1038/s41467-024-48017-6

    2. Smith-Byrne K, Hedman Å, Dimitriou M, et al. Identifying therapeutic targets for cancer among 2074 circulating proteins and risk of nine cancers. Nat Comm. 2024;15(1):3621. doi: 10.1038/s41467-024-46834-3

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