Cancer is a disease characterized by abnormal cell proliferation, faster than expected, which could be triggered by mutation. It is a gradually progressive disease, usually manifesting at an older age, years after the initial mutation. Having concluded that the median age at the time of diagnosis of cancer is 66, a recent study has shown that these cancers might have been triggered decades ago, long before the first physical manifestation of the disease.
At the Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a recent study has been able to delineate and give us more insight into the origin and progress of cancer cells. The progression pattern of cancer cells in two patients was evaluated and tracking the chronological sequence of the cancer cells till the single-cell stage, the original mutated cell.
By retracing the progression pattern of the cancer cells in both individuals that had Myeloproliferative Neoplasia (MPN), a rare blood cancer that causes abnormal amplification of blood cells, and estimating when the initial mutation that spawned the disease process had emerged. The 63-year-old patient was discovered to have acquired the mutation at the age of 19 while the 34-year-old patient had acquired his at the age of 9. Both had occurred few decades before cancer became apparent, giving more credence to some few cases where the original cells were believed to have appeared over 40 years ago.
The scientists created a diagrammatic genetic tree that could feature the evolutionary relationship between the abnormal cells through a common ancestor till the first mutated cell, uniting this with their knowledge of the rate of accumulation of the JAK2 Gene mutation, they were able to ascertain when the mutation appeared first. It started with one cell, and even after a decade, they were just about 100 abnormal cells that ran into thousands in the next few years due to the exponential growth of the cancer cells.
A new phase in cancer management?
This discovery was published in the March 4 issue of Cell Stem Cell, increasing the list of factual assertions that cancer cells gradually progress over a substantial duration of time before emerging a visible disease. From the revelation, we could also hope on discovering new patterns that will ensure timely detection, prevention, and intervention.
According to the co-corresponding study author Sahand Hormoz, an HMS assistant professor of systems biology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “For both of these patients, it was almost like they had a childhood disease that just took decades and decades to manifest, which was extremely surprising” on another note, he said, “I think our study compels us to ask, when does cancer begin, and when does being healthy stop? It increasingly appears that it’s a continuum with no clear boundary, which then raises another question: When should we be looking for cancer?”
When the bone marrow stem cells acquire a JAK2 mutation, overproduction of blood cells is erroneously activated, and though the study focused mainly on Myeloproliferative Neoplasia, a rare type of blood cancer, which is linked to a mutation in the JAK2 gene, it still gave us a clue on the modeling of other numerous puzzling cancer groups.
This study has unveiled a new era in the research towards early detection of cancer, and we hope to see new technological advancement into this commonplace in medical practice. We hope to be able to point out these aberrant cells even before the patient is aware and to get a clearer understanding of other types of cancer, hoping also to predict persons who are most likely going to develop the disease and those who will not.