Cheek cells can lead to early cancer detection

A new study has found that cell changes in cheeks could be an early warning sign of the onset of different types of cancer.

The study, published in the May 14 in the journal JAMA Oncology, showed that smoking may bring on cell changes linked to cancers including gynecological and breast.

Research shows smoking can disrupt a cell’s epigenome – the chemical changes of DNA and histone proteins – eventually leading to quickly growing cells as seen in cancer.

The study analyzed cheek swabs from 790 women and found the smokers were more likely to have the changes associated with gynecological and breast cancers. These changes were associated with cancer development, caused by environmental factors such as cigarette smoking.

The cheek cells offered a better indicator of a woman’s epigenetic changes than blood cells, showing a 40 times increase in abnormal genetic activities compared to their blood samples.

In a statement, lead author Andrew Teschendorff, a research fellow at the University College London (UCL) Cancer Institute explained, “Our work shows that smoking has a major impact on the epigenome of normal cells that are directly exposed to the carcinogen.

“This research gets us closer to understanding the very first steps” in cancer’s development, he said.

During the study, scientists discovered a “signature” of smoking and by looking at that signature, were able to differentiate between normal tissue and cancerous tissue with near absolute certainty, including cancer in other parts of the body.

Teschendorff notes that the findings could lead to detect and even predict a person’s cancer risk. He also says that this “signature” could be used to determine if a pre-cancerous lesion could form into an invasive cancer.

“These results pave the way for other studies in which easily accessible cells can be used” to look for epigenetic changes that may indicate a person’s cancer risk, said the study’s senior author Dr. Martin Widschwendter, of UCL’s Institute for Women’s Health.

“This is incredibly exciting for women’s cancers such as ovary, breast and endometrial cancer, where predicting the cancer risk is a big challenge,” Widschwendter said in a statement.

Although the study was not conducted on men, previous epigenetic studies using blood samples have suggested that smoking related changes are independent of sex.

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