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Health news: Predicting cancer years ahead with a blood test?

Scientists at Northwestern and Harvard universities say they’ve made a discovery that could lead to a blood test to predict cancer years before it’s diagnosed.

They linked changes in blood cell telomeres — protective caps on DNA strands that are a biological marker of aging — to later development of cancer.

Telomeres shrink with age. In people who later were diagnosed with cancer, they initially shrank much faster — appearing to be 15 years older than those in people who didn’t develop cancer. Then, three or four years before cancer was found in these people, the shrinking, or aging, of the telomeres stopped.

“Understanding this pattern of telomere growth may mean it can be a predictive biomarker for cancer,” said Dr. Lifang Hou, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine who was the lead author of the study reported Thursday in the journal EBioMedicine.

Dr. Lifang Hou, Northwestern University

“Because we saw a strong relationship in the pattern across a wide variety of cancers, with the right testing, these procedures could be used to eventually diagnose a wide variety of cancers,” Hou said.

The research was described as the first to examine telomere changes over a broad span of time — 13 years — in people later diagnosed with cancer. The scientists measured telomeres in 792 people — 135 of them later were diagnosed with prostate, skin, lung, leukemia and other cancers.

Every time a cell divides, telomeres get shorter. With age, a body’s cells have divided more — and the telomeres have gotten shorter. Cancer cells divide and grow more rapidly than normal cells. So scientists wondered: Why don’t the telomeres get so short they finally disappear?

“We found cancer has hijacked the telomere-shortening in order to flourish in the body,” Hou said.

What’s still not clear is how. If scientists can figure that out, Hou said they might one day be able to develop treatments that would, instead, cause cancer cells to self-destruct but not damage healthy cells.

Depression puts pregnant women at risk for diabetes, study finds

Women with a history of depression might face a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy, a Loyola University study has found.

The Loyola researchers looked at 135 women going for routine prenatal care. Of those, 65 were found to have gestational diabetes, which causes pregnancy complications for what’s estimated to be more than 200,000 women nationwide each year.

The women with gestational diabetes were nearly 3.8 times more likely than the other women to have a history of depression and also were more likely to have had what were described as significant symptoms of depression, the researchers reported in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing.

Pregnant women suffering from depression are more likely to smoke, drink and miss doctor visits, according to the researchers.

“Women with a history of depression should be aware of their risk for gestational diabetes during pregnancy and raise the issue with their doctor,” said Mary Byrn, a nurse and Loyola assistant professor who co-authored the study. “Health care providers also should know and understand the prevalence and symptoms of prenatal depression and gestational diabetes and screen and manage these women appropriately.”

Mary Byrn, Loyola University

Walking found to help after prostate cancer

Three hours a week of easy walking — or 90 minutes of brisk walking — could help limit some side effects of prostate cancer treatment, reducing fatigue and depression, researchers have found.

“This study shows that you don’t have to engage in high-impact, vigorous activities to improve your quality of life after a prostate cancer diagnosis,” said Siobhan Phillips, a Northwestern University kinesiologist and assistant professor of preventive medicine who was lead author of the study, reported in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship: Research and Practice. “Since many prostate cancer survivors might find vigorous activities hard to stick with, the good news is that simply focusing on walking more may be enough to make them feel better.”

She found walking helped with hormone function and vitality, though not with side effects involving bowel, urinary or sexual function.

Siobhan Phillips