A new prospective study suggests that people who have white blood cells with shorter telomeres are at a higher risk of developing cancer. This research is the first of its kind to address the direct connection between telomeres and cancer. In what is known as the Bruneck Study, the telomeres of 787 subjects in England, Austria and Italy were monitored over the course of ten years. It was determined that those who possessed the shortest telomeres at the start of the study were three times as likely to develop cancer, and those in the middle group of telomere length had double the risk of those with the longest telomeres. “What’s believed to be the major function of a telomere is to maintain the stability of chromosomes, to prevent the chromosomes from degrading or rearranging or becoming altered in one way or another,” said Dr. Eliot Rosen, an oncology professor at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. “A reduced telomere length would be predicted to lead to an increased risk of cancer.”
Though the unconfirmed study has little clinical usefulness at this time, it could potentially be very important in the future, where “telomere length may well become a component of risk scores for cancer manifestation and, eventually, cancer prognosis,” said Dr. Stefan Kiechl, senior author of a paper which appeared in the July 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.