Study to probe if cancer protection genes exist

WATCH: B.C. scientists are studying so-called ‘super seniors’, hoping to discover how they’ve made it to the age of 85 without developing one of the six key diseases. Elaine Yong reports.

Can certain genes protect people from cancer? One of the country’s top research organizations is hoping to find out.

The Canadian Cancer Society has commissioned geneticists in British Columbia to assess the genes of some of the country’s healthiest people.

The research subjects have all reached at least the age of 85 without developing cancer, heart disease, major lung ailments, stroke, diabetes or dementia.

Lead researcher Angela Brooks-Wilson says the study will try to determine whether these people, dubbed “super seniors,” have any genetic characteristics that have protected them from cancer over the years.

The study is expected to take at least two years to complete. They’re looking for people over the age of 85 who have never been diagnosed with a major health concern, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

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The society is funding the project through a $200,000 grant that was entirely crowdsourced during a one-week campaign last November.

Brooks-Wilson said the project marks an exciting new phase of research that has been underway for more than a decade.

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It’s taken nearly 17 years to gather data on 500 super seniors, who Brooks-Wilson describes as an extremely rare breed. Previous research suggests that these people contain many of the gene sequences that lead to cancer in other demographic groups, but the society-funded research will focus on the genetic factors that have kept them healthy for decades.

“We’re hypothesizing that they have something that overrides the other genetics, the negative factors, that may be a sort of genetic override switch,” Brooks-Wilson said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.

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She said the next two years will be spent analyzing the genetic data to see if such an override switch even exists. If it does, more research would be required to determine exactly what it consists of and how it works.

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If the analysis proves fruitful, Brooks-Wilson said it could have exciting repercussions for future cancer treatments.

“If we could figure out factors like that, our goal would be then to find ways to mimic them, pharmacologically potentially,” she said.

But Brooks-Wilson said genetics is not the only factor at play in protecting people from cancer, adding that sound lifestyle choices around diet and exercise also play a critical role.

Robert Wiener of Montreal agrees. He credits frequent activity and exercise for helping him reach the age of 106 without serious health issues.

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The retired oral surgeon shares Brooks-Wilson’s theory about the role of genetics, citing the fact that all six of his siblings lived to be over 80 but believes that a lifetime of eating whole foods and participating in sports has proven equally valuable.

His brother, who survived to age 110, spent time on the treadmill until two months before his death, Weiner said. He himself favours brief daily bike rides as well as regular tai chi and yoga classes at the retirement home where he lives, adding other centenarians who don’t take part in such activities have a noticeably lower energy level.

Wiener also takes care to make fish, vegetables and fruit the main staples of his diet.

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“You must help yourself and you must be careful of what you consume,” he said.

“And you have to be born with the right genes. I guess that’s my philosophy.”

WATCH: Global News talks to Dr. Angela Brooks-Wilson about her team’s research

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