Background: Telomeres play a key role in the maintenance of chromosome integrity and stability, and telomere shortening is involved in initiation and progression of malignancies. A series of epidemiological studies have examined the association between shortened telomeres and risk of cancers, but the findings remain conflicting. Methods: A dataset composed of 11,255 cases and 13,101 controls from 21 publications was included in a meta-analysis to evaluate the association between overall cancer risk or cancer-specific risk and the relative telomere length. Heterogeneity among studies and their publication bias were further assessed by the χ2-based Q statistic test and Egger's test, respectively. Results: The results showed that shorter telomeres were significantly associated with cancer risk (OR = 1.35, 95% CI = 1.14-1.60), compared with longer telomeres. In the stratified analysis by tumor type, the association remained significant in subgroups of bladder cancer (OR = 1.84, 95% CI = 1.38-2.44), lung cancer (OR = 2.39, 95% CI = 1.18-4.88), smoking-related cancers (OR = 2.25, 95% CI = 1.83-2.78), cancers in the digestive system (OR = 1.69, 95% CI = 1.53-1.87) and the urogenital system (OR = 1.73, 95% CI = 1.12-2.67). Furthermore, the results also indicated that the association between the relative telomere length and overall cancer risk was statistically significant in studies of Caucasian subjects, Asian subjects, retrospective designs, hospital-based controls and smaller sample sizes. Funnel plot and Egger's test suggested that there was no publication bias in the current meta-analysis (P = 0.532). Conclusions: The results of this meta-analysis suggest that the presence of shortened telomeres may be a marker for susceptibility to human cancer, but single larger, well-design prospective studies are warranted to confirm these findings.
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