DNA fault may allow detection of 'early-onset' bowel cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers have found a genetic abnormality that may one day provide a way of warning patients that they may have bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer is normally diagnosed when patients are in their 60s, but around 17 per cent of cases are diagnosed in people under the age of 50.

Scientists believe that bowel cancer in younger people is biologically different to that in older patients, as young people tend to be in the later stage of the disease when diagnosed and are more likely to develop rectal cancer than older bowel cancer patients.

A team of researchers at Mayo Clinic in the United States have now discovered that it may become possible to detect the early signs of bowel cancer in younger patients by looking at the length of their telomeres - special 'caps' on the end of a cell's chromosomes that naturally shorten with age and have been linked to age-related diseases, including cancer.

The researchers took blood samples from 114 bowel cancer patients aged 50 and under, as well as a further 98 people who were free from cancer, and studied their DNA.

They found that the blood cells taken from bowel cancer patients, who were all considered to have developed the disease at an unusually young age, contained abnormally young age, contained abnormally short telomeres.

Lead researcher Dr Lisa Boardman, a specialist in cancers of the digestive tract, said: "Finding this association between colon cancer patients and increased telomere shortening is exciting because, if validated, it really opens up new possibilities for new treatment strategies.

"For example, we know that telomere length can be repaired, so we want to look at telomere maintenance genes which, when defective, might very well contribute to cancer."

The researchers hope that further studies may one day enable telomere length to be used to warn doctors that a patient may be in the early stages of bowel cancer, even before symptoms have become apparent.