A Northwestern and Harvard University joint-study recently re-looked at the relation between telomeres and the development of cancer. Past studies had shown inconsistent results linking telomere length and cancer; some results showed a correlation, others no.

This study followed 792 patients over a 13-year period before any of them had been diagnosed with cancer. In the end, 135 of the 792 patients did indeed end up developing some form of cancer including prostate, skin, lung, leukemia, and others.

By recording telomere lengths before the cancer diagnosis, the researchers were able to observe what changes occurred in the telomeres leading up to the eventual onset of cancer. The pattern observed in the cancer patients was that the blood cell telomeres went through a rapid shrinking process as the patients were developing cancer, and suddenly stopped shrinking or growing altogether 3-4 years before the actual cancer diagnosis.

The Northwestern-Harvard study is significant in being one of the only studies to follow telomere length before the onset of cancer. In other studies, telomere length had only begun to be measured after the diagnosis of cancer and then throughout the treatment phase. The reason those results were so unclear is because scientists could not compare the data of the patients telomere length before the treatment to after, therefore possibly misinterpreting the effectiveness of cancer treatments.

The rapid shrinkage and then sudden stagnation pattern observed in the 135 patients of this study may prove to be a telling biomarker for cancer studies in the years to come.