Are Scientists on the Verge of Developing a Blood Test to Detect Pancreatic Cancer Early?

Test may identify and treat premalignant pancreatic lesions.

Test may identify and treat premalignant pancreatic lesions.

Scientists are one step closer to developing a blood test for early pancreatic cancer detection.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related death in the United States, and part of this is due to the fact that early detection is extremely difficult. If there were a way to detect pancreatic cancer early, there would be an increase in the 6% 5-year survival rate.

Researchers at the Moffitt Cancer Center hope to improve pancreatic cancer survival rates by identifying markers in the blood that can pinpoint patients with premalignant pancreatic lesions called intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (IPMNs).

“One promising strategy to reduce the number of people affected by pancreatic cancer is to identify and treat premalignant pancreatic lesions,” said first author Jennifer Permuth-Wey, PhD, MS, assistant member in the Departments of Cancer Epidemiology and Gastrointestinal Oncology at Moffitt. “IPMNs are established precursor lesions to pancreatic cancer that account for approximately half of all asymptomatic pancreatic cysts incidentally detected by computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in the U.S. each year.”

Moffitt researchers want to develop a blood test that can distinguish the difference between low-risk and high-risk IPMNs which would require surgical removal by studying microRNAs (miRNAs), a class of small molecules that regulate key genes involved in the development and progression of cancer.

“Using new digital technology, we compared the expression patterns of miRNAs in the blood and discovered a set of 30 miRNAs that differentiated between IPMN patients and healthy volunteers. We also identified five miRNAs that could distinguish between high-risk IPMNs and low-risk IPMNs,” said senior author Mokenge Malafa, MD, FACS, department chair and program leader for Moffitt’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program. “We are excited about our preliminary findings, but much more research is needed before such a blood test could be made available in the clinical setting.”

Researchers hope that in the not-so-distant future, they will develop such a blood test to be used in combination with imaging features such as MRI and CT scans to determine the severity of diagnosis and proceed with the necessary treatments from there, thereby increasing the survival rate of patients. The authors believe that the incorporation of such a blood test into routine clinical practice could provide a prime opportunity for intervention during the pre-cancerous phase before the development of pancreatic malignancy.

Moffitt researchers plan to partner with Florida Academic Cancer Center Alliance in a new partnership called the Florida Pancreas Collaborative to further their research on IPMNs. Their ultimate goal is to promote the prevention and early detection of pancreatic cancer.

“Considering that Florida ranks second in the number of pancreatic cancer deaths that occur each year and the fact that pancreatic cancer is projected to surpass breast, prostate and colorectal cancer and become the second leading cause of cancer deaths by 2030, we are thrilled that our state is committed to investing in pancreatic cancer research now,” Dr. Permuth-Wey said.

Scientists plan to further investigate screening for low- and high-risk IPMNs and how this can affect the outcome of patient treatment and survival rates. Until a proper blood test is developed, patients must depend on the traditional methods for screening and hope that their pancreatic cancer can be detected early for a better chance at survival.

“Early detection and screening are the most effective ways for ‘at-risk’ individuals to minimize the potential for developing pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Malafa said.