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Research points towards early cancer detection

03 October 2007

A test to detect the very early stages of cancer could one day result from new research by Cardiff University scientists.

A team at the University’s School of Medicine has just published a study on telomeres - small structures at the end of human chromosomes which can play a crucial part in the onset of cancer.

Telomeres control cell division in the body - by gradually becoming shorter they can tell cells when it is time to stop dividing. However when telomeres stop working properly, they can cause the cells to mutate and start dividing uncontrollably, which can lead to the formation of tumours.

The Cardiff study used ground-breaking techniques to study telomeres in human cells. The researchers found the critical length at which telomeres stop working and also that some telomeres can be shortened or deleted at random, without any external cause.

The researchers also discovered how chromosomes can fuse together once they lose the protection of their telomeres. Chromosomal fusion causes the chromosomes to disintegrate, which can result in the development of cancerous growths. The Cardiff study means there is now a system which can detect chromosomal fusions from single DNA molecules, opening up the possibility of an "early-warning" test for cancer.

Project leader Dr Duncan Baird, of the School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology, said: "This study threw up a number of significant results. The fact that telomeres can be deleted at random in otherwise normal cells indicates that some of the earliest cancerous changes can be initiated without any obvious extraneous influence. Our long-term aim with this research is to develop a clinical test to pick up these events. The fact we can now detect chromosome fusions at the single molecule level offers hope that we will be able to achieve it."

Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, which funded the research, said: "Dr Baird and his team are making great strides in increasing our understanding of the very earliest stages of cancer by looking at these changes in single cells. It remains to be seen whether they can translate their technique and findings into a reliable test for early cancers."

The research has just been published in the leading international journal Genes and Development.

Ends

Notes to Editors:

Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, the University today combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s leading research universities. Visit the University website at: www.cardiff.ac.uk

About Cancer Research UK

• Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.

• Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.

• Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.

• Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.

• Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit www.cancerresearchuk.org.uk.

Further Information:

For more information, please contact:

Dr Duncan Baird
School of Medicine
Cardiff University
029 2074 4849
e-mail: BairdDM@cardiff.ac.uk

Stephen Rouse
Public Relations Office,
Cardiff University.
029 2087 5596
e-mail: RouseS@cardiff.ac.uk