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"If other studies confirm and build upon these findings, this promising research could be used to develop a less invasive method to help doctors identify people who are at a higher risk of anal cancer and avoid unnecessary procedures for those who are at a lower risk," said Dr. Rachel Orritt, Cancer Research U.K.'s health information officer.
"This study builds on what we already know about the link between changes to cell DNA and cervical cancer, and shows that similar changes to the DNA in anal cells could suggest anal cancer," she said.
Diagnosing anal cancer is difficult and tough for patients, the researchers said. Biopsies can be painful, and clinicians can disagree over the results of analyses of small samples of cells. Another approach, known as the high-resolution anoscopy, is costly and uncomfortable, the researchers noted.
"The widespread over-treatment of anal precancerous lesions is necessary today because we don't know which ones will progress to cancer," lead researcher Attila Lorincz, a professor with Queen Mary University of London, said in a school news release.
The lack of a simpler test puts a large burden on anoscopy clinics in the United Kingdom. Plus, the procedure can be detrimental to people's quality of life. Many people undergo these procedures unnecessarily, according to Lorincz.
"What we really need is precision medicine to identify those who do need treatment," he said.
For the study, the researchers analyzed anal biopsy specimens from 148 patients, including 116 men, mostly gay and bisexual men. The researchers found certain genetic variations in all of the anal cancers.
"We believe this new set of biomarkers goes a long way to indicating which men and women are at risk of developing anal cancer," Lorincz said.
"Now that we can identify those at risk, and conversely, those not at risk, we hope to see a big improvement by making sure that anoscopies and laser or chemical surgery are only given to those who need it," he added.
The researchers believe a test could be developed over the next five years.
The study appears May 25 in the journal Oncotarget.
-- Randy Dotinga
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