Gay men could benefit from a new genetic test for cancer

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Gay men could be among those who benefit from a new genetic test that may better identify those at high risk of anal cancer.

Early research by scientists at Queen Mary University of London found that the test could be an accurate and inexpensive way to detect and treat those at highest risk.

Mostly caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), there has been a growing incidence of anal cancer among women, men who have sex with men, and people with HIV.

HPV vaccine

The new test could reduce the need for painful procedures and lower the rate of “over-treatment”.

Lead researcher Professor Attila Lorincz said: “The widespread over-treatment of anal precancerous lesions is necessary today because we don’t know which ones will progress to cancer.

“But this creates a large burden on anoscopy clinics in the UK and the procedures can be detrimental to people’s quality of life.

“Many people are undergoing these procedures unnecessarily, so what we really need is precision medicine to identify those who do need treatment.”

Related: HPV vaccine to be offered to men who have sex with men

Professor Lorincz added: “We believe this new set of biomarkers goes a long way to indicating which men and women are at risk of developing anal cancer.

“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.”

The new research – published in the journal Oncotarget – studied anal biopsies from 148 patients, 116 of whom were men, and most were men who have sex with men.

The biopsies were analysed to look for genetic markers that may be associated with the presence of anal cancer and results suggested this type of testing may be an accurate and thorough method.

It is hoped that such testing could reduce the costs and pain that arise from other methods of diagnosis, as well as the “over-treatment” of people actually at low risk of anal cancer.

The research was funded by Cancer Research UK, whose health information officer Dr Rachel Orritt welcomed the early findings.

“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.

“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.”