Blood test may help find early-stage pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease and often diagnosed too late
US researchers genetically reprogrammed cancer cells and discovered indicators of early-stage pancreatic cancer, a disease usually diagnosed too late to treat patients; blood test derived from study could be ready for use soon
A new blood test may accurately detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages, offering new hope for people at risk of this fast-moving and often fatal disease, researchers said Wednesday.
Typically, pancreatic cancer is discovered when the tumours are too large to treat. Four in five patients die within a year of diagnosis.
More than 53,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer annually. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer death. Well-known victims of the disease include Apple founder Steve Jobs, actors Patrick Swayze and Alan Rickman, and singer Luciano Pavarotti.
A long-standing concern has been that patients with pancreatic cancer are often not diagnosed until it is too late for the best chance at effective treatment,” said study co-author Robert Vonderheide, director of the Abramson Cancer Centre at the University of Pennsylvania. “Having a biomarker test for this disease could dramatically alter the outlook for these patients.”
Using stem cell technology to create a cell line from a patient with an advanced form of pancreatic cancer, researchers were able to turn back the clock on the progression of the disease.
In doing so, they found a pair of biomarkers – or identifiers in the blood – that picked up pancreatic cancer in human cancer cells at different stages of tumour growth.
“Genetically reprogramming late-stage human cancer cells to a stem-cell state enabled them to force the reprogrammed cells to progress to an early cancerous state, revealing secreted blood biomarkers of early-stage disease along the way,” said a summary of the report, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
One biomarker known as plasma thrombospondin-2 (THBS2), combined with a known later-stage biomarker called CA19-9, “consistently and correctly identified all stages of the cancer,” said lead author Ken Zaret, director of the Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
“Notably, THBS2 concentrations combined with CA19-9 identified early stages better than any other known method.”
The test could be done with an inexpensive, commercially available protein-detection assay, researchers said.
In principle, the test could be applied right away, though researchers cautioned they want to do further work “to be absolutely certain of the cut-off values that we have for what is a significant or likely call for disease”, a spokeswoman said.
“Some more work will be needed but in general the test and concept could be applied,” she said.
A key population for the test would include people with a family history of pancreatic cancer, those with a genetic predisposition to the disease, or who had a sudden onset of diabetes after the age of 50.
Earlier this year, a separate team of researchers in the United States and China unveiled a new blood test for detecting pancreatic cancer.
That method involved finding a protein dubbed EphA2 found in pancreatic tumours, according the February report in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.