Pancreatic cancer is one of the only cancers wherein the survival rate has not significantly improved over the past 40 years. That’s going to change.
It is estimated that 48,960 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year and 40,560 will die. The stats say that 74 percent of those diagnosed will die in the first year and 94 percent of those diagnosed will die within 5 years. But why?
Place and Time
The problem is the time of diagnosis. Because of the pancreas’ placement in the body and the symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, it is difficult to diagnose. This means that most diagnoses come too late into the cancer’s development.
The symptoms are varied, from weight loss and jaundice to back and belly pain, it all depends on where the cancer is. The pancreas is broken down into four parts: the head, neck, body, and tail. In general, the symptoms show up more quickly when the cancer is in the head compared to the neck and tail.
An international team of researchers was able to identify 100 percent of patients with late-stage pancreatic cancer as well as those with earlier stages of the disease. How? By changing what they were looking for. And with a drop of blood.
A Problematic Protein
Tumor cells make a certain protein in abundance. That protein turns up in tiny virus-sized particles called exosomes, which are excreted by all the body’s cells, according to the study. But that protein turns up in exosomes only when there is cancer, so its presence is an early warning marker for the disease.
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Dr. Raghu Kalluri, professor and chairman of the department of cancer biology at the MD Anderson Cancer Center knows how hard pancreatic cancer is to detect. “People don’t feel any symptoms that make them want to go to the clinic until their cancer is stage 3 or stage 4. Using this test we were 100 percent accurate in identifying all cancer patients.”
Although this is fantastic news, further study is required. After being verified and validated, the test will still need to be fully understood and developed before being widely used.
The initial stages of research are going well, however. Kalluri and his colleagues took samples from 190 patients with pancreatic cancer, 32 patients with breast cancer, and 100 healthy volunteers. The results were promising if not intriguing.
An Interesting Correlation
They found that levels of the protein were correlated to the severity of the cancer. So, in patients with further stages of cancer, more proteins were found. And not at all in the healthy volunteers. The most intriguing findings were in 7 patients with cases of early pancreatic cancer.
It was amazing to have screened these individuals and have found the cancer – because pancreatic cancer is notoriously hard to diagnose. It was more amazing that the levels of the protein dropped after the tumors were removed. This shows that pancreatic cancer is able to be caught earlier and that the protein is a valid marker of the disease and its progression.
Kalluri knows this test is still in early stages, but remains positive. “This is just a speculation based on the current strength of the study,” Kalluri says, but he believes that a screening test for this protein may be available in as little as a year.
A test for detecting early pancreatic cancer could save thousands of lives.
The Doctor Is In
“Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in this country and it’s predicted if the current prevalence and survival rate continues, that it will become number two within the next 5 to 10 years,” says Dr. Timothy Donahue, associate prof of surgery and molecular and medical pharmacology and chief of pancreas and gastrointestinal surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Donahue and Kalluri are both excited to see the early wins with this test, and both suggest further study so the test can be properly vetted and validated before being put into nationwide or even worldwide use. Donahue leaves us with one last, promising thought:
“It’s as good of an academic start as I’ve ever seen.
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