Researchers say that a gene responsible for helping to control the aging process by regulating a “cell’s internal clock” may be linked to a type of blood cancer.

Scientists from The Institute of Cancer Research in the UK found a genetic variant called TERC among four new variants that they linked to multiple myeloma – a form of cancer that affects immune cells produced in the bone marrow for circulation in the blood. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Genetics.

The researchers say that this latest discovery takes the number of total genetic variants linked to myeloma to seven, and may help lead to the discovery of genetic causes of the disease.

Myeloma is a relatively uncommon cancer according to the American Cancer Society statistics, with a 1 in 149 risk of developing the disease in the US.

For the study, the research team analyzed the genetic make-up of 4,692 patients who had myeloma, and compared this with DNA of 10,990 people who did not have the blood cancer.

The scientists say that in a previous study they conducted, three genetic variants were discovered in DNA, which was found to increase the risk of myeloma.

The new batch of variants in this most recent study were discovered by combining these samples with other samples collected by researchers in Germany. The researchers add that this produced more data and more statistical accuracy.

From this, the genetic variant TERC was discovered. It works, the scientists explain, by regulating the length of telomere “caps” (protective caps) on the ends of DNA. Over time, these caps erode in healthy cells, causing tissues to age.

But the researchers say that some cancer cells appear to be ignoring the aging trigger and continue to divide. They add that if the link between TERC and myeloma is confirmed, this could lead to new treatments of the blood cancer.

Richard Houlston, professor of molecular and population genetics at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), explains: “Our study has taken an important step forward in understanding the genetics of myeloma, and suggested an intriguing potential link with a gene that acts as a cell’s internal timer.”

Prof. Houlston adds:

We know cancer often seems to ignore the usual controls over aging and cell death, and it will be fascinating to explore whether in blood cancers, that is a result of a direct genetic link.

Eventually, understanding the complex genetics of blood cancers should allow us to assess a person’s risk or identify new avenues for treatment.”

Professor Chris Bunce, research director at Leukemia & Lymphoma Research, says this research offers more evidence that the risk of myeloma can be inherited.

“By showing how these specific genes influence the cancer’s development, this research could potentially lead to the development of targeted myeloma drugs in the future,” adds Prof. Bunce.

“In addition we know that a common condition called MGUS predisposes to the development of myeloma. The identification of additional genetic risk factors in these patients could revolutionize their future management and prospects.”