Small red blood cells could be novel early-stage cancer biomarker

New research conducted by a University of Exeter medical school student may have discovered a novel early-stage biomarker for a number of different cancers. The research found subjects with abnormally small red blood cells were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as those with normal blood results.

Microcytosis is a medical condition in which a patient displays unusually small red blood cells and which can be caused by a number of different underlying factors, including anemia or iron deficiency. Prior research has found links between microcytosis and cancers such as colorectal or kidney, however, this is the first study to investigate whether the blood condition can be used as a broad biomarker for a variety of cancers.

Examining over 100,000 anonymized UK patient data records the study homed in on around 12,000 records of patients with microcytosis. Overall, four percent of patients with microcytosis were diagnosed with cancer during the year-long follow-up. This compares to only two percent of patients without microcytosis being diagnosed with cancer across the same follow-up period.

Looking at men in particular, the risk of cancer was slightly higher, with a 6.2 percent increase in cancer risk linked to microcytosis, compared to 2.7 percent in the male control. Colorectal, lung, lymphoma, kidney, and stomach cancers were most prominently associated with microcytosis. No link between breast cancer and microcytosis was detected in the data.

“Research targeted at diagnosing cancer earlier is so important in reducing the burden of this devastating disease,” says medical student and lead author on the study, Rhian Hopkins. “The identification of risk markers, such as microcytosis, that are relevant to a range of cancers, can have a real impact in primary care.”

Will Hamilton, who oversaw Hopkins’ student research, suggests the finding offers doctors a new clue that could help in their arsenal of diagnostic tools. Microcytosis is relatively simple to detect through standard blood tests and, in combination with other patient data, it could help catch cancers at early stages.

“Small red cells have long been recognized with colon cancer, but this study shows that they are a much broader clue, alerting the doctor to the small possibility of one of several possible cancers,” says Hamilton.

The new study was published in the British Journal of General Practice.

Source: University of Exeter

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