A new study has raised hopes for an “early warning system” that could help detect cancer cells before they develop into tumours. 

Scientists at Edinburgh University have discovered that normal cells can take on characteristics of immune cells, which can send warning signs when they are stressed or in danger.

The mechanism is part of the body’s system for removing older cells, a natural part of the ageing process, known as senescence.

Researchers say the system could also be harnessed by medical science to help detect cancer cells sooner, so that they can be removed before tumours form.

Senescence stops cells from dividing and prevents damaged cells from continuing to grow. The process is prompted by stress to the cell. 

However, it is also triggered when genes that have the potential to cause cancer – called oncogenes – become active.

For this reason, scientists at Edinburgh University’s Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre, believe it could be used to develop an “early warning” test. 

They found that key immune molecules inside cells, called TLR2 and TLR10, detect when oncogenes are switched on.

This initiates a cascade of chemical signals that cause inflammation and trigger immune cells to remove the damaged cell.

TLR2 and TLR10 were known to be important for detecting infections such as bacteria and viruses, but this is the first time they have been found to play a key role in ordinary cell ageing.

Ageing is the single biggest cause of cancer, far exceeding preventable causes such as smoking, alcohol and obesity.

The study has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Dr Juan-Carlos Acosta, CRUK Career Development Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The results of the study extend our knowledge of molecular mechanisms controlling senescence and may lead to new strategies for development of anti-cancer and anti-ageing therapeutics.”

Dr Matthew Hoare, clinician scientist and honorary consultant from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, added: “If the immune system does not destroy the senescent cell, the surrounding tissue can become inflamed, promoting cancer development. 

“This is a really hot area for research, as senescence has the potential to stop cancer development in the earliest stages. 

“These findings show for the first time that damaged cancer-causing cells use TLR2/10 signalling to become inflamed, presenting potential drug targets that could help the body clear senescent cells before they cause harm.”

Meanwhile, separate research at Edinburgh University has found that four out of five people with the brain condition Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) still suffer symptoms such as limb weakness or paralysis 14 years after initial diagnosis.

Experts tracked the outcomes of more than 100 patients in the largest study of its kind. 

FND is estimated to be as common as multiple sclerosis, but it cannot be detected using conventional brain scans leading to doctors dismissing patients as imagining or faking the condition.

They can also be reluctant to give a diagnosis of FND for fear of making a mistake. But the study – published in the journal Brain – found that mistakes are rare.

Professor Jon Stone, of the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, said: “This study shows the importance of neurologists staying involved with the long-term management of patients to guide treatment and detect additional neurological conditions, which can rarely occur years after the start of FND.

“It should also help clinicians provide a more realistic prognosis for patients with FND when it causes limb weakness and stresses the importance of active and targeted treatment which many of these patients didn’t have.”