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Press Release: Erik publishes in Blood

21 March 2016 Author: Molepi - Molecular Epidemiology

Elderly patients often have the same DNA errors as leukaemia patients

Roughly one in five elderly patients have DNA errors in his or her blood cells that are also present in leukaemia patients. Remarkably, these genetic defects in the elderly do not necessarily translate into a lower life expectancy. This was discovered by a group of researchers from the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), the Delft University of Technology and Erasmus MC in Rotterdam.

Their findings will be published in the March 17 edition of the scientific journal Blood. “We have been conducting research for years into the oldest members of our society and the possible reasons for their healthy and lengthy lifespan,” explains Erik Van den Akker, an LUMC researcher. The body may age due to the occurrence of genetic errors that gradually accumulate over the course of one’s life.   

Major role  

To test this theory, Van den Akker and research leader and professor Eline Slagboom examined the DNA of elderly individuals. The study included 864 people aged 80 and older. Many were found to carry the kind of genetic defects which, according to previous research, play a major role in the occurrence of leukaemia. Of the individuals examined who were above the age of 90, almost twenty percent had these kinds of DNA errors in their blood. This is considerably higher than the number of carriers found in previous studies that focused on middle-aged individuals. In other words, it would seem that ageing leads to an accumulation of these DNA errors.  

Ill effects

A striking difference is that the middle-aged individuals in previous studies with the same DNA errors suffer ill effects from them. This includes shorter life expectancy, according to Van den Akker. “The elderly, on the other hand, appear to not be negatively affected by these types of DNA errors in their blood, despite the fact that we usually view them as a very fragile group. In our study, there was even a 107-year-old woman who, for at least the past 10 years, had had a genetic defect often found in leukaemia patients – without suffering any ill effects from it.”  

Important information  

Why is the LUMC study useful? “I think it is particularly important information with respect to the use of DNA tests in hospitals in determining the course of the disease in leukaemia patients. The elderly may indeed be incorrectly evaluated when it comes to leukaemia because they can carry the genetic defect in this blood,” says Van den Akker. He will be conducting further research into the hereditary material of this group of elderly. Van den Akker hopes that the genetic information will help clarify which factors contribute to the chance of healthy ageing. Ageing research is one of LUMC’s focus areas