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Down syndrome could be key in cancer research

Posted: 11:00 PM, Feb 16, 2016
Updated: 2016-02-17 23:02:56Z

Imagine if you held the secret to finding a cure for cancer. Researchers now believe a special group of people may have something most of us do not.

Researchers say it comes down to a single chromosome -- an extra one that people with Down syndrome were born with. Unlocking that genetic code opens up the possibility of life-changing treatments for the world's most deadly diseases.

Toni Rolin, who is 10 years old, was diagnosed with Down syndrome soon after she was born.

While it's not easy growing up with the disability, you wouldn't know it seeing Toni's enthusiasm for most everything in life.

"She didn't walk until she was almost 2," said Toni's mom, Rene. "Everything just takes a little bit longer, but we get there."

Rene was amazed when she learned about the connection between Down syndrome and cancer research.

Kids with Down syndrome are 50 times more likely to get leukemia by age two, but they also have better odds of beating cancer.

Dr. Joaquin Espinosa is focused on that one chromosome unique to people with Down syndrome and what that could tell us.

"On one hand, they may be predisposed to leukemia," said Espinosa. "On the other hand, they may be resistant to tumors spreading."

Espinosa said less than 1 percent of people with Down syndrome develop hard tumor cancers like breast or prostate cancer. If they do, adults with Down syndrome are 20 times less likely to die from hard tumor cancers.

"Imagine for a moment there's a group of individuals, 450,000 of them in the U.S.A., that are highly protected from cancer," Espinosa said. "Wouldn't you want to study them to find out what is particular about them?"

Espinosa is leading a team of researchers in Denver to determine whether people with Down syndrome could hold the key to treating or even preventing cancer for everyone.

RELATED: DENVER'S CRNIC INSTITUTE LOOKING AT GENES THAT BATTLE TUMORS

"What is it about the genetic makeup that prevents the development of all those tumors?" said Espinosa.

If Toni and others like her could help answer a question about cancer, that would in some way help Rene answer what she's asked for years: Why? Why my kid?

"Maybe they're part of the future that really takes us to the next whatever," said Rene. "That actually keeps us all healthy and on this Earth even longer."

Though researchers are still working on why it's so rare for people with Down syndrome to get tumors, they do have a theory. People with Down syndrome have a harder time developing blood vessels, which could be the reason those tumors don't grow.