Pancreatic cancer starts with few symptoms, and this means that it is often advanced, and so less easily treatable, by the time patients show up at their doctor's surgery room. Being able to screen people at risk, or even the general population, could mean earlier treatment, and a blood-based biomarker presented at the American Association for Cancer Research's Pancreatic Cancer: Progress and Challenges conference may make this a practical possibility.
To avoid false positives, and so avoid people being worried unnecessarily, or even getting treatment they don't need, a population-based screen would have to be sensitive and accurate, as well as simple and low-cost. The researchers, based at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, created a panel of 9 biomarkers and used it to screen the blood of 117 healthy people, 58 people with chronic pancreatitis and 159 people with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, the most common form of pancreatic cancer. They found that this test was highly specific, but not sensitive enough, because there are so many different genetic flaws linked with the disease.
Using a statistical model, the team calculated that the ideal test would need 40 biomarkers, and Matthew Firpo, one of the authors, believes that this is feasible: "Identifying 40 biomarkers is reasonable. We believe we can find 40 biomarkers that are weak classifiers of the disease. That means that based on the current understanding of biomarkers that we have, there is hope for developing a panel that would have greater than 99% accuracy."
This is still early research, and the next step is to create the pool of biomarkers. However, such a panel could help to cut the 37,390 U.S. deaths from the disease predicted for 2012 by the National Cancer Institute.
At the same conference, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have linked a genetic marker that leads to increased expression of the receptor for vitamin D to increased rates of overall survival.