A simple blood test could detect a person's risk of developing blood cancer five years before symptoms of the disease are apparent, according to two new studies.
Scientists at Harvard University and and Harvard-affiliated hospitals independently found people with mutations in their blood were 13 times more likely to develop blood cancer later in life.
Older people are known to have more blood mutations, however, when a large amount of mutated blood cells are found in a younger person they may be at a significantly higher risk of developing diseases like leukaemia, lymphoma and myelodysplastic syndrome.
Most genetic research on cancer to date has focused on studying advanced cancers.
But both new studies looked at mutations that cells acquire over time as they replicate and regenerate within the body. They looked at DNA samples from the blood of individuals not known to have cancer or blood disorders.
Both teams found that a surprising percentage of those sampled had acquired a subset - some but not all - of the somatic mutations that are present in blood cancers.
"People often think about disease in black and white - that there's 'healthy' and there's 'disease' - but in reality most disease develops gradually over months or years,” assistant professor and senior author Steven McCarroll at Harvard Medical School said.
All of the researchers involved emphasised that there is no clinical benefit today for testing for this pre-malignant state as there are no treatments currently available that would address blood cancer in otherwise healthy people.
However, they say the results open the door to entirely new directions for blood cancer research, toward early detection and even prevention.
"The results demonstrate a way to identify high-risk cohorts - people who are at much higher than average risk of progressing to cancer - which could be a population for clinical trials of future prevention strategies," McCarroll said.
"The abundance of these mutated cells could also serve as a biomarker - like LDL cholesterol is for cardiovascular disease - to test the effects of potential prevention therapies in clinical trials."