Huntington's disease and similar conditions 'linked to reduced risk of cancer'

In collaboration with the Press Association

Having Huntington's disease or similar conditions is linked to a reduced risk of developing cancer, according to Swedish research.

The work suggests there could be a common genetic mechanism in these diseases that protects against cancer.

Huntington's disease belongs to a group of illnesses known as polyglutamine (polyQ) diseases.

These are rare neurodegenerative disorders that share a common genetic trait, which involves the repetition of certain elements in their genes.

This leads to the production of faulty proteins that build up inside cells, causing damage.

Researchers at Lund University and Skane University Hospital, led by Dr Jianguang Ji, say that further research into the specific mechanism that leads to the apparently lower risk of cancer could help scientists in their fight against the disease.

The polyQ diseases are Huntington's disease, spinobulbar muscular atrophy (SBMA), dentatorubral and pallidoluysian atrophy, and six types of spinocerebellar ataxia.

The study looked at 1,510 patients with Huntington's disease, 471 with SBMA, and 3,425 with hereditary ataxia, all identified over a 50-year period.

Researchers found that a Huntington's disease patient was 53 per cent less likely to develop cancer than someone without the disease. For those with SBMA the risk was 35 per cent lower, while the chances of someone with Huntington's disease developing cancer was 23 per cent less than the general population.

Over the study period, cancer was diagnosed in 91 Huntington's disease patients (6 per cent), 34 SBMA patients (7 per cent), and 421 hereditary ataxia patients (12 per cent).

The authors said: "Our findings suggest a common mechanism in patients with polyQ diseases that protects against the development of cancer, and expansion of the polyglutamine tracts seems likely. Future studies should investigate the specific biological mechanisms underlying the reduced cancer risk in patients with polyQ diseases."

Eleanor Barrie, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said the study was interesting: "It's not clear how the genetic changes that cause Huntington's and other similar diseases could protect against cancer, and research in the lab will help to find out more.

"Scientists at Cancer Research UK and around the world are probing the genetic faults that contribute to cancer in their quest to beat the disease, and this is another potential avenue to explore."

Copyright Press Association 2012