Oxford’s Early Cancer Detection Breakthrough: Proteins in Blood


Oxford University scientists have made a groundbreaking discovery that could revolutionize cancer diagnosis and prevention. They have identified proteins in the blood that may warn people of cancer more than seven years before current methods allow. This discovery holds the promise of not only treating cancer at an earlier stage but potentially preventing it altogether.

The Discovery

In two pivotal studies, researchers identified 618 proteins linked to 19 different types of cancer. Remarkably, 107 of these proteins were found in blood samples collected at least seven years before the individuals were diagnosed with cancer. These proteins are believed to be involved in the very earliest stages of cancer development.

The research team utilized a powerful technique called proteomics. This technique allows scientists to analyze a large set of proteins in tissue samples at a single point in time. By doing so, they can observe how these proteins interact with each other and identify significant differences between samples from cancer patients and healthy individuals.

The Studies

In the first study, scientists analyzed blood samples from over 44,000 British individuals. This group included more than 4,900 people who were later diagnosed with cancer. Using proteomics, researchers examined a set of 1,463 proteins from each blood sample. They compared the proteins of those who developed cancer with those who did not, identifying which proteins were linked to cancer risk. The study also identified 182 proteins that differed in the blood three years before a cancer diagnosis.

The second study delved deeper into genetic data from over 300,000 cancer cases. Researchers aimed to pinpoint which blood proteins were involved in cancer development and could be targeted by new treatments. They discovered 40 proteins in the blood that influenced the risk of developing nine different types of cancer. The study also revealed which proteins might lead to unintended side effects if altered.

Future Research and Potential Impact

Despite these promising findings, the team emphasized the need for further research to understand the exact role these proteins play in cancer development. They also need to determine which proteins are the most reliable for testing, what tests could be developed to detect them, and which drugs could target them effectively.

Dr. Keren Papier, co-author of the first study and a Senior Nutritional Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health, highlighted the importance of understanding the earliest stages of cancer. “To save more lives from cancer, we need to better understand what happens at the earliest stages of the disease,” she said. Dr. Papier stressed the need to study these proteins in depth to determine which ones could be reliably used for prevention.

Genetic Influences on Cancer

Dr. Joshua Atkins, a Senior Genomic Epidemiologist and co-author, explained the significant role that genes and the proteins they produce play in cancer development. “The genes we are born with, and the proteins made from them, are hugely influential in how cancer starts and grows,” he noted.

The research owes much to the thousands of people who contributed blood samples to the UK BioBank. These samples have enabled researchers to build a comprehensive picture of how genes influence cancer development over many years.

Potential Side Effects

Dr. Karl Smith-Byrne, a Senior Molecular Epidemiologist at Oxford, discussed the team’s efforts to predict how the body might respond to drugs targeting specific proteins. “We’ve predicted how the body might respond to drugs that target specific proteins, including potential side effects. Before clinical trials, we have some early indications of which proteins we might avoid targeting because of unintended side effects,” he said.

Professor Ruth Travis, another team member, emphasized the importance of understanding the factors driving the earliest stages of cancer 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,” she said.

Technological Advancements

Advancements in technology have been crucial to these discoveries. “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,” explained Prof. Travis.

Dr. Iain Foulkes, an executive director at Cancer Research UK, which funded the work, highlighted the importance of early detection in preventing cancer. “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,” he said.

The discoveries made by Oxford University scientists mark a crucial step towards offering preventative therapies for cancer. These breakthroughs could lead to longer, better lives free from the fear of cancer. By identifying proteins that warn of cancer years in advance, this research opens new avenues for early diagnosis and prevention, potentially transforming cancer care and significantly improving patient outcomes.