Pancreatitis or cancer? Mayo Clinic says mutated gene points the way

Does a patient have pancreatic cancer or chronic pancreatitis? Diagnosing the difference is crucial, but hard for clinicians to do because both conditions produce similar symptoms such as inflammation. Now Mayo Clinic scientists say they've discovered a biomarker that will help make the job much easier down the line.

They found this new biomarker--the altered gene CD1D--in pancreatic secretions tested during upper endoscopies, from patients thought to have either chronic pancreatitis or the more serious pancreatic cancer. They were able to generate the material through the injection of secretin, which made the pancreas behave as if the stomach was full of food, after which it secreted enzyme juices to break down the food. Researchers took samples and proceeded with their study.

What they found: 75% of patients later found to have pancreatic cancer had the altered CD1D gene. But only 9% of patients with chronic pancreatitis had the marker.

While more tests are needed here, the researchers say CD1D worked better than any previous pancreatic secretion marker tested as a pancreatic cancer identifier. And it could help make treating patients far easier and more accurate. Chronic pancreatitis is an inflammatory condition that can cause serious complications but often subsides without treatment, the Mayo Clinic has previously noted. Pancreatic cancer, on the other hand, can be deadly, and is often identified after it is too far advanced, explaining, in part, why it has a 5-year survival rate of just 6%.

In fact, researchers at the Mayo Clinic are already looking at other ways to combat the disease. Earlier this year, their Florida facility announced that scientists there discovered a new target--a molecular pathway that is switched on at all times, that promotes accelerated growth of pancreatic tumors.

As far as the current Mayo Clinic finding, which scientists detailed at Digestive Disease Week 2013 in Orlando, FL, work continues on improving the accuracy of their pancreatic cancer biomarker test. Their goal: accuracy above 90%, and the researchers say that level is entirely possible.

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