Scientists inch closer to blood test for pancreatic cancer

Without any screening tests, pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed early, and has become the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the US. Steve Jobs died of it at the age of 56 in 2011.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
Of those diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, 99 percent die within five years. Blausen Medical

Pancreatic cancer carries one of the worst prognoses of any disease, period. A whopping 99 percent of people diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer are dead within five years, and without any screening tests, it's usually found late. Even though it's one of the least diagnosed types of cancer in the US, it is the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths. With such a grim record, scientists are hard at work looking for a test that can spot the disease earlier.

And while they caution that their work is preliminary, Danish scientists are reporting Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that a new blood test may help spot it early by looking for specific genetic biomarkers in a blood sample.

By analyzing the blood samples of more than 400 patients with pancreatic cancer, 300 healthy controls, and 25 patients with chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas, often caused by chronic alcohol abuse), the team found two microRNA tests that have the potential to diagnose the cancer at an early stage.

One flaw, however, is that the tests are producing a high number of false positive results -- although the scientists say that by combining their tests with a CA19-9 test (this compound is higher in the majority of patients with pancreatic cancer), patients with positive results could get MRI or CT scans to confirm them. Another potential issue is that the test was developed around people already diagnosed, so the biomarkers may not be present in people in earlier stages.

Either way, researchers first need to validate the initial results and sort out the clinical implications before the test can be put into general use -- something that could take years.

For now, patients who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have two options: Let the disease run its course or surgically remove part of the pancreas. Unfortunately, because the cancer is typically found so late, even most patients who undergo surgery are not cured.

"Being able to detect pancreatic cancer at a very early stage could change this, and lead to the cure of this disease," Dr. Donald Richards, a pancreatic cancer specialist at Texas Oncology, told HealthDay.

William Phelps, program director at the American Cancer Society, cautioned that while the test is a step in the right direction, researchers still need to come up with effective treatments that take advantage of earlier diagnoses. "Having an early diagnosis system could be useful," he said. "It's kind of based on an article of faith in that we expect there will be good therapies arising in the future. You would like early detection to be paired with a capacity to treat successfully."

And even if early diagnosis and successful treatments become available, regular screenings, particularly of high-risk patients, will need to become widespread to actually catch and treat the disease early.

Still, for anyone familiar with just how deadly this cancer is, any news is good news.