Johns Hopkins blood test points possible way toward early pancreatic cancer detection

A blood test that screens for two genes could help uncover drastically early signs of pancreatic cancer or spot patients at risk of developing it, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers believe. Data from a small study of their diagnostic approach suggest their test could be an important step in reducing mortality from the disease.

The journal Clinical Cancer Research published details of their research.

Pancreatic cancer often isn't spotted until it has already metastasized, the researchers note, and its overall 5-year survival rate is less than 5%. That makes developing an early diagnostic test for the disease especially important. A test that can provide reliable, early diagnosis or screen for patients at risk of pancreatic cancer could boost survival rates by opening the door for treatment far sooner. This, in turn, could heighten the chance that drug treatments will ultimately be successful.

Several advances in recent weeks show that work on early pancreatic cancer diagnostic tools is proceeding on multiple fronts. The Cleveland Clinic, for example, believes it has found a biomarker in bile that can serve as a tool for earlier pancreatic cancer detection. San Diego's Applied Proteomics recently sealed a deal with Germany's largest biomedical research institute to develop new blood diagnostic tests, in part, for pancreatic cancer. The National Cancer Center in Tokyo and other institutions are studying a new blood test they developed for early pancreatic cancer diagnosis that identifies two key proteins connected to cholesterol metabolism that drop in patients with pancreatic cancer.

In the Johns Hopkins case, researchers looked at blood samples from 42 people with early-stage pancreatic cancer and spotted two reliable biomarkers: BNC1 and ADAMTS1. They found both genes in 81% of blood samples from the patients in their study. BNC1 and ADAMTS1 were also prevalent in 97% of tissue taken from early-stage invasive pancreatic cancers. Overall, the blood test targeting both biomarkers hit a specificity of 85%. In contrast, the researchers note that a PSA antigen test detects only about 20% of prostate cancers.

The team didn't detect the telltale genes in otherwise healthy patients or those with a history of pancreatitis. In the pancreatic cancer patients, the researchers detected both genes at incredibly small levels, through the use of nanoparticle magnets drawn to tiny amounts of molecules shed by the tumors.

This is an early, promising result. More research is needed before the blood test can be considered anywhere close to being viable. Consider that the test identified the biomarkers and not actual cancer. Additional tests would be required for the pancreatic cancer itself, the scientists cautioned.

Lead researcher Dr. Nita Ahuja said in a statement that she wants to pursue a larger study, in an effort to duplicate the results with a wider tumor sample. If further clinical trials succeed, the test could eventually help spot patients at high risk for developing the disease. She also wants to boost the test's sensitivity and specificity in future trials.

"While far from perfect, we think we have found an early detection marker for pancreatic cancer that may allow us to locate and attack the disease at a much earlier stage than we usually do," Ahuja said.

- read the release
- here's the journal abstract