In May 2020, Rhain Hopkins–a student at the University of Exeter– and her team found a link between abnormally small red blood cells and cancer.
Having abnormally small red blood cells is a medical condition known as microcytosis. It can be caused by a few different factors, among them iron deficiency and anemia. But the link between microcytosis and cancer wasn’t clear until Hopkins and her team of researchers examined records of over 12,000 UK patients aged over 40, in a study funded by Cancer Research UK and the NIHR.
The researchers found that male patients with microcytosis had a cancer risk of 6.2%, while those with normal-sized red blood cells had a cancer risk of only 2.7%. Female patients, whether they had microcytosis or not, had lower cancer risks overall: A 2.7% risk for those with microcytosis, and a 1.4% risk for those without.
“Research targeted at diagnosing cancer earlier is so important in reducing the burden of this devastating disease. The identification of risk markers, such as microcytosis, that are relevant to a range of cancers, can have a real impact in primary care,” said Hopkins. During the study period, Hopkins was working with the University of Exeter’s cancer diagnosis team to acquire more experience in the field, as part of her Professional Training Year, a program available to all Medical Sciences students.
UEMS professor weighs in
Professor Willie Hamilton of the University of Exeter Medical School, who monitored the research project, seemed to be less concerned about the link between small red blood cells and cancer, as patients with microcytosis still had a relatively low risk of cancer, although he did support further research into the subject.
“Overall, the risk of cancer in patients with microcytosis was still low; however, our research indicates a need to investigate cancer. In two patients with cancer out of three the possibility of cancer is fairly easy to identify. For the other third, symptoms are often vague, and don’t clearly point to cancer,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton also noted that microcytosis has been associated with colon cancer in the past. “Small red cells have long been recognised with colon cancer, but this study shows that they are a much broader clue, alerting the doctor to the small possibility of one of several possible cancers,” he said.
This newfound link could one day spur the development of laboratory tests to determine a patient’s risk of cancer, just by studying their blood cells.
To sum up
A student at the University of Exeter determined that having small red blood cells–a condition known as microcytosis–was linked to an increased risk of cancer; however, additional research on the topic is necessary.
Written by Natan Rosenfeld
- Microcytosis/Microcytic anemia – UpToDate
- Microcytosis as a risk marker of cancer in primary care: a cohort study using electronic patient records | British Journal of General Practice
- Research news – Exeter student leads research concluding that small red blood cells could indicate cancer – University of Exeter