Harmless Fingernail Problem Linked to Steep Cancer Risk

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A woman looking at her finger nails concerned.
Malochka Mikalai / Shutterstock.com

Paying attention to any abnormalities in your nails is important for a number of health reasons — and researchers just happened across another.

A study published in JAMA Dermatology, a journal of the American Medical Association, suggests a link between a nail condition and an inherited syndrome associated with a significantly higher risk of certain cancers.

Onychopapilloma is a rare but benign tumor in a fingernail. It typically only affects one nail and appears as a colored band along the length of a nail that’s thick underneath, including at the end of the nail.

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Scientists at the National Institutes of Health were assessing people with BAP1 tumor predisposition syndrome, a rare genetic mutation involving a gene called BAP1, whose functions normally include suppressing tumors. People with this mutation have what the study describes as a “particularly increased” risk of developing cancer of the eyes, kidneys, skin and mesothelium (the tissue lining the chest and abdomen).

Participants were given a dermatology screening upon enrollment in the study and then on an annual basis.

One participant told researchers he’d noticed changes in his fingernails. A biopsy showed he had onychopapilloma on multiple nails. This prompted researchers to take a closer look at other participants’ nails. They found that he wasn’t the only one with this condition.

Among participants age 30 and older who were known to have BAP1 tumor predisposition syndrome, 88% had onychopapilloma that affected multiple nails.

Researchers concluded that the presence of onychopapilloma, particularly on multiple nails, should prompt health care providers to consider that an affected patient might also have BAP1 tumor predisposition syndrome.

The National Institutes of Health notes that nail screenings could be “particularly valuable” for patients with a personal or family history of melanoma (a form of skin cancer) or other potential BAP1-associated forms of cancer.

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