Skin cells may act as early warning for cancer


Washington: Cancer is such a complex genetic disease that one has to sequence a person’s complete genome in order to predict his or her risk. But a recent study reveals that the risk may be more simply determined by inexpensively culturing a few skin cells.

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Harry Rubin, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at University of California-Berkeley (UC-B), acknowledges that cancer cells have mutations in hundreds of genes, making it hard to determine which are key triggers and making prognosis and treatment equally difficult.

But Rubin argues that, while it may be hard to dissect the role of each of these mutations, their collective effect should be observable in tissue before any cancers develop.

Specifically, increases in how densely the cells grow, which Rubin argues are a prelude to cancer, may be detectable even before the disease appears, warning of risks that could be lessened by behavioural changes.

“Over a 50-year career, I’ve worked with cells transforming (into cancer) in culture and seen the first step in a dynamic way, seen cells continuing to multiply when they should have stopped,” Rubin said.

“This is the first step in cancer, though not yet cancer, and you can measure these changes quantitatively.”

The problem, of course, is that it is impractical to test all the body’s tissues to determine whether they have abnormal cell growth, says an UC-B release.

But Rubin has found evidence from other studies that, in some cases, skin fibroblasts show these early changes even before cancer appears in other tissues, such as the colon.

Fibroblast is a cell found in connective tissue that produces fibres, such as collagen.

These findings were published in the September issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.