FRIDAY, Oct. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Pancreatic cancer is one of
the most lethal tumor types because it's too often diagnosed in a
later, advanced stage. But a new study suggests that a simple blood
test might help spot the disease earlier.
The study is described as small and preliminary, and
investigators cautioned that the initial findings will need to be
confirmed in larger trials.
"Pancreas cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States," said study coauthor Dr. Nita Ahuja, an associate professor of surgery in the department of oncology and urology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore. "There have been minimal to no improvements in the survival from this disease in the last 40 years. There are over 40,000 people diagnosed every year and about that many deaths."
"One of the main reasons for the lethal nature of this cancer is that most cancers are diagnosed too late once they have spread to other organs," Ahuja said. "Around 8 percent have spread to distant organs such as the liver or lungs, while another 10 percent have locally spread to major blood vessels. However, in the patients where cancer can be detected early and has not spread, a long-term cure is possible with surgical removal of the cancer with the surrounding lymph."
Any means of spotting the cancer early would therefore be
crucial, Ahuja added. "We have mammograms to screen for breast
cancer and colonoscopies for colon cancer, but we have had nothing
to help us screen for pancreatic cancer," she said.
Ahuja said the new study sought to find blood "markers" for
pancreatic cancer "in patients who are at increased risk for
developing this cancer, such as [those with a] family history or
Ahuja's team had previously identified mutations in two genes,
called BNC1 and ADAMST1, that typically occurred in the presence of
pancreatic cancer. Since both mutations are found in 97 percent of
early stage pancreatic cancer tissues, the researchers developed
tests to search for signs of the mutations in blood samples
collected from 42 people already diagnosed with early stage
Reporting in the current online edition of the journal
Clinical Cancer Research, Ahuja's team said both genetic
markers were found in 81 percent of the tested blood samples, but
not in samples taken from patients who either did not have
pancreatic cancer or had a history of pancreatitis (an inflamed
The researchers said the results are much more impressive than,
for example, the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test used to
screen for prostate cancer, which has roughly a 20 percent success
Still, an 81 percent accuracy rate is "far from perfect," Ahuja
said. The test also had a false-positive rate of 15 percent,
meaning that 15 percent of people who get the test initially will
be told they might have pancreatic cancer when that is not the
And Ahuja stressed that the test is
notdesigned as a screen for the population as a whole --
only for those already deemed to be at high risk for the
"The eventual goal is to develop a cost-effective test to test patients who are at high risk," she said. "The beauty of this test is that it can be repeated every year as you go for your annual physical."
Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is an associate professor of medicine
in the division of hematology and oncology with University
Hospitals Case Medical Center & Case Western Reserve University
School of Medicine, in Cleveland. She applauded the research,
saying that "if pancreatic cancer could be detected at an early
stage, more patients would be cured."
"This study presents an encouraging step in the right direction," Krishnamurthi said. "The authors have developed a blood test that detected the earliest stage of pancreatic cancer and correctly identified most of the healthy individuals tested. However, this was a very small study. The blood test must be studied in many more patients with early stage pancreatic cancer and healthy individuals to really know if it will be an accurate and reliable screening test for pancreatic cancer."
Find out more about pancreatic cancer at the
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