Catching pancreatic cancer early with a new blood test

Pancreatic cancer is a terrible disease. It has the highest mortality rate among all major cancers, with 75% of patients dying in the first year and 92% of patients dying within 5 years. It is often called the silent killer because it is terribly difficult to detect and often has minimal symptoms associated with it. Risk factors for pancreatic cancer can include the usual suspects including smoking, obesity, and exposure to certain chemicals used in metal refining. Pancreatic cancer affects older people (average age of 71) and men more than women. It is also more prevalent in people with diabetes or chronic pancreas inflammation (pancreatitis). While chemotherapy and removal of the tumour is able to help treat or possibly cure the cancer, it is usually only effective when caught early. The problem is there are no techniques available to detect the cancer in the early stages and only about 15% of people with pancreatic cancer are lucky enough to catch it early. What is desperately needed is an easy to use blood test that can reliably identify the cancer, especially in the early stages, so that treatment is more likely to succeed in destroying the cancer. Researchers out of Houston (published in Nature) may have developed just such a blood test that promises to drastically improve the detection rate early in disease.

The researchers identified a protein that was on the surface of exosomes secreted by the pancreatic cancer cells. Exosomes are small vesicles or bubbles released by cells all over your body. They typically contain protein and RNA or DNA and are thought to be important in communication between cells of your immune system. The protein the researchers identified on these exosomes is called Glypican-1. It is found on all exosomes in your body and could play a role in controlling cell division and growth, both things that when unregulated are important in the development of cancer. While the protein is found on all exosomes, the researchers saw that the level of Glypican-1 on exosomes from patients with pancreatic cancer was significantly greater than those on exosomes from healthy patients. When measuring the levels of Glypican-1 on exosomes in patients with cancer, the researchers saw that the test could distinguish the patients with cancer from the healthy people 100% of the time. Additionally, the group identified that the amount of Glypican-1 increased with disease severity and that a drop in Glypican-1 in patients undergoing chemotherapy was associated with better survival over 40 months then those whose Glypican-1 didn’t drop as much.

There will still be rounds of clinical testing and validation before this test is used in a clinical setting but it is a promising result for people who suffer from pancreatic cancer or don’t know yet that they do. Early detection in cancer can mean the difference between beating and succumbing to cancer. Detection of breast cancer in stage one results in 100% survival, stage IV results in 22% survival. Pancreatic cancer early detection can mean the difference between 14% survival and 1%. With this blood test, doctors may be able to detect and monitor the progression of pancreatic cancer to determine the best curative course of action. They may also be able to use this test or variations of it to detect other cancers at an early stage.

Photo Credit: Jason Eppink Flikr

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