A cell biologist from the University of California, Berkeley has reason to believe that just inexpensively culturing a few skin cells can predict a person's cancer risk.
Harry Rubin, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, has acknowledged that cancer cells have mutations in hundreds of genes, making it hard to determine which are the key triggers and making prognosis and treatment equally difficult.
Even normal tissue differs from person to person because of a myriad of less disruptive mutations and because of different environmental exposures, both of which affect future cancer risk.
But he argues that, while it may be hard to dissect the role of each of these mutations, their collective effect should be observable in tissue before any cancers develop.
Specifically, increases in how densely the cells grow, which Rubin argues are a prelude to cancer, may be detectable even before the cancer appears, warning of risks that could be lessened by behavioural changes.
"Over a 50-year career, I've worked with cells transforming (into cancer) in culture and seen the first step in a dynamic way, seen cells continuing to multiply when they should have stopped. This is the first step in cancer, though not yet cancer, and you can measure these changes quantitatively," said Rubin.
But it is impractical to test all the body's tissues to determine whether they have abnormal cell growth.
But Rubin has found evidence from other studies that, in some cases, skin fibroblasts show these early changes even before cancer appears in other tissues, such as the colon.
"The abnormal growth behaviour of skin fibroblasts in cancer-prone individuals has suggested that, at least in some cases, cancer can be considered a systemic disease and that this difference in the behaviour of skin fibroblast cells from such individuals may be a practical basis for prevention, diagnosis and management of the disease," he concluded in his paper.
Rubin suspects that the growth change in skin fibroblasts heralds a general change in all the body's epithelial tissue, that is, the tissues that line all the body organs.
The most prevalent cancers - including colon, breast, lung, skin, head and neck - arise from epithelial tissue.
For example, in certain cancer-prone families, the same mutated gene is found in all tissues, and the fibroblasts grow to high densities in culture, just like epithelial cells in a precancerous field do in the body.
The study was published in a recent issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.