Can Genes Prevent Cancer?

‘Super Seniors’ study aims to identify genetic factors that could protect people from five major diseases

Montrealer Robert Weiner, a 106-year-old retired oral surgeon, still exercises every day at his retirement home and regularly does yoga and Tai Chi. Vancouver’s Dal Richards, 97, walks a mile a day, then practices on his clarinet or saxaphone for at least half an hour.

What do these two men have in common? They’re ‘Super Seniors’, a group of people 85 or older who have never been diagnosed with cancer, or with heart disease (including stroke), lung disease, dementia or diabetes.

There are 498 other ‘Super Seniors’ like Weiner and Richards taking part in a unique $1.15-million Study of Healthy Aging being funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Canadian Cancer Society.

Analyzing questionnaires, along with saliva and blood samples, this unique Canadian study is comparing the Super Seniors’ genetic make-up with a database of 100,000 other people, some of whom are disease-free, some of whom are not. The goal is to try and identify any genetic factors that may have protected the Super Seniors from those five major disease categories for all these years.

“Our focus is on genetics, so our goals relate to what we hope to learn genetically,” says British Columbia-based Dr. Angela Brooks-Wilson, a geneticist, and the principal investigator in the study. “But there’s a big caveat to that,” she adds. “We already know that lifestyle is very important in healthy aging and that’s well documented.”

Such things as diet, exercise, not smoking, and limiting alcohol all play a big role in how well we age. We all have the power within us to improve our lifestyle, she points out, but we can’t do much about our genetic make-up – at least not yet. This study could potentially change that.

olderr-womanLooking at overall health as a pie, lifestyle and environment account for about 75 per cent, says Dr. Brooks-Wilson. Genetics only account for about 25 per cent– but that quarter packs a powerful punch.

That’s why the goal of the study is to identify any “genetic override switches” that may be overruling the genes that can pre-dispose us to disease. The ultimate goal would then be to find a way to pharmaceutically mimic those ‘genetic override switches’.

So what are the implications for us Zoomers? Could this mean that down the road there might be a drug that would keep us cancer-free or dementia-free?

“I hesitate to make a statement as bold as that,” says Dr. Brooks-Wilson, “but of course that’s the goal.”

It took five years to find 500 Super Seniors willing to take part in the study, which is still ongoing.

And while the Study of Healthy Aging is a purely science-based study, researchers couldn’t help but notice certain similarities among the Super Seniors.

“Anecdotally, many of them were very, very busy and it was actually quite hard to schedule time with them. It was like scheduling an executive they were so busy – not all in jobs necessarily, but just doing things and volunteering and seeing family and doing other activities,” says Dr. Brooks-Wilson. “I do like to pay attention to the anecdotes. It’s not as quantitative, but it does give you a picture and sometimes some interesting surprises.”