TUESDAY, July 6 (HealthDay News) -- People who have white blood cells with shorter telomeres may be at a higher risk of developing cancer, especially aggressive cancers that are more likely to kill, new research suggests.
Telomeres are the "shoelace ends" that cap and protect your chromosomes and naturally get shorter as you age.
Right now, the findings aren't likely to have any clinical usefulness, said Dr. Stefan Kiechl, senior author of a paper appearing in the July 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. But in the future, he added, "telomere length may well become a component of risk scores for cancer manifestation and, eventually, cancer prognosis."
The main significance of the new research is in understanding the biology of cancer, according to Dr. Eliot Rosen, an oncology professor at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.
"If the study is confirmed, it's a very, very important finding, but there isn't enough information [here] to be certain of this," he said. "It's very interesting and potentially important, but I wouldn't make too much of it till it's confirmed."
Previous studies have linked cancer and short telomeres via an enzyme called telomerase, which builds telomeres, Rosen explained.
In the natural life cycle, cells stop dividing when telomeres become too short. Cancer cells are able to override this by expressing more of the enzyme telomerase.
"Normal adult cells in the body do not express a telomerase, so for a cell to become immortal and continue to divide, the cell has to express telomerase," Rosen explained.
"What's believed to be the major function of a telomere is to maintain the stability of chromosomes, to prevent the chromosomes from degrading or rearranging or becoming altered in one way or another," he continued. "A reduced telomere length would be predic
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