A gene that controls the human aging process may also be linked to a particular kind of cancer.
The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics on August 18, is the first to draw a connection between blood cancer and aging. Scientists identified four genetic variations that most likely cause myeloma – a cancer of plasma cells that causes about 10,000 deaths each year in the United States.
"Our study has taken an important step forward in understanding the genetics of myeloma, and suggested an intriguing potential link with a gene that acts as a cell's internal timer,” study co-leader Professor Richard Houlston, professor of molecular and population genetics at The Institute of Cancer Research, said in a statement.
The study more than doubled the known genetic variants or “spelling mistakes” in DNA linked to myeloma. One of the genes found by researchers is called TERC which regulates the length of the telomere 'caps' on the ends of DNA. In healthy cells the caps erode, causing tissue to age over time. In cancerous cells, the caps continue to divide.
Scientists studied a total of 4,692 myeloma patients using DNA from 10,990 people without the disease. The results were combined with data collected by researchers in Germany to ensure a “greater statistical accuracy.”
"We know cancer often seems to ignore the usual controls over aging and cell death, and it will be fascinating to explore whether in blood cancers that is a result of a direct genetic link,” Houlston said adding that the results could help develop future myeloma treatments.
Myeloma is a type of cancer caused by genetic mutations in white blood cells. In a person with the disease, the cells grow abnormally in the bone marrow and can form a tumor. The American Cancer Society estimates 22,350 new cases of multiple myeloma will be diagnosed this year.
"Myeloma remains incurable and the effect on patients' quality of life can be devastating," Chris Bunche, a professor and research director at Leukemia & Lymphoma Research told U.S. News and World Report. "By showing how these specific genes influence the cancer's development, this research could potentially lead to the development of targeted myeloma drugs in the future."