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Proteins linked to cancer can start appearing in people’s blood more than seven years before they’re diagnosed. In the future, it’s possible doctors could use these early warning signs to find and treat cancer much earlier than they’re able to today.

Two studies published in Nature Communications by researchers at Oxford Population Health’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit provide clues about how to identify people who are at high risk of developing cancer and could be used to develop strategies for prevention and treatment.


To be able to prevent cancer, we need to understand the factors driving the earliest stages of its development. These studies are important because they provide many new clues about the causes and biology of multiple cancers, including insights into what’s happening years before a cancer is diagnosed. We now have technology that can look at thousands of proteins across thousands of cancer cases, identifying which proteins have a role in the development of specific cancers, and which might have effects that are common to multiple cancer types.
- Professor Ruth Travis, Senior Molecular Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and a senior author of both studies

In one of the studies, the researchers analysed blood samples provided by 44,000 participants in the UK Biobank. 4,900 of the 44,000 people had developed cancer at some point in their lives after their sample had been collected.

The researchers looked at 1,463 proteins present in the blood samples. To find out which ones could be linked to cancer risk, they compared the results for people who did not develop cancer with the results for those who went on to develop cancer to see whether or not there were any differences between the proteins present.

Key findings

  • Of the 1,463 proteins analysed, 618 proteins were associated with 19 different types of cancer;
  • 107 of these proteins were present in blood samples of people who developed cancer more than seven years before they received a diagnosis;
  • 182 proteins were present in blood samples of people who developed cancer more than three years before they were diagnosed.


To save more lives from cancer, we need to better understand what happens at the earliest stages of the disease. Data from thousands of people with cancer has revealed really exciting insights into how the proteins in our blood can affect our risk of cancer. Now we need to study these proteins in depth to see which ones could be reliably used for prevention.
- Dr Keren Papier, Senior Nutritional Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and joint lead author

In the second study, the researchers looked at data from over 300,000 cancer cases to find out which blood proteins were involved in cancer development and could be targeted by new treatments. The scientists found 40 proteins in the blood that influenced someone’s risk of getting nine different types of cancer. While altering the way that these proteins work may increase or decrease the chances of someone developing cancer, the scientists also found that in some cases this may lead to unintended side-effects.


We’ve predicted how the body might respond to drugs that target specific proteins, including any potential side-effects. Before any clinical trials take place, we have some early indications of which proteins we might avoid targeting because of unintended side-effects. This research brings us closer to being able to prevent cancer with targeted drugs - once thought impossible but now much more attainable.
- Dr Karl Smith-Byrne, Senior Molecular Epidemiologist at Oxford Population Health and a senior author of the first paper and first author of the second study

The results of both studies, which were funded by Cancer Research UK, have demonstrated that some of these proteins could be used to detect cancer much earlier than is currently possible. This could help treat the disease at a much earlier stage or prevent it altogether.  However, further research is needed to find out the exact role these proteins play in cancer development, which of the proteins are the most reliable ones to test for, what tests could be developed to detect the proteins in the clinic, and which drugs could target these proteins.


Preventing cancer means looking out for the earliest warning signs of the disease. That means intensive, painstaking research to find the molecular signals we should pay closest attention to. Discoveries from this research are the crucial first step towards offering preventative therapies which is the ultimate route for giving people longer, better lives, free from cancer.
- Dr Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK Executive Director of Research and Innovation



Read more on the Oxford Population Health and Cancer Research UK websites.