A new blood test might one day help doctors spot pancreatic cancer in its early stages, Danish scientists report.
The researchers said their testing is still too preliminary to be certain it can accurately diagnose pancreatic cancer in patients whose chances of survival are higher.
There currently is no screening test for pancreatic cancer, the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. It is typically diagnosed at a late stage, making treatment problematic and the prognosis poor.
"Pancreatic cancer is a deadly disease. The only chance for cure is a surgical [removal of a portion of the organ]," said Dr. Donald Richards, a pancreatic cancer specialist at Texas Oncology, in Tyler.
Even with surgery, the majority of patients are not cured, Richards said. For many more patients, the cancer is so far along that surgery is not even an option.
"Being able to detect pancreatic cancer at a very early stage could change this, and lead to
the cure of this disease," Richards said.
The Danish report was published in the Jan. 22 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The new test looks for telling patterns in certain pieces of genetic material known as microRNA. When these patterns show up, it raises the likelihood of pancreatic cancer, the researchers said.
For the study, a team lead by Dr. Nicolai Schultz, from the Herlev Hospital, a part of Copenhagen University Hospital, analyzed the blood of more than 400 patients with pancreatic cancer, comparing them with about 300 healthy individuals and 25 patients with chronic pancreatitis.
For comparison, they also checked the levels of a specific compound, known as CA19-9, that is elevated in about 80 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer.
In the end, they found two specific microRNA tests that potentially could be used to diagnose pancreatic cancer.
One drawback to the tests, so far, is the high number of false positive results, the researchers said. Combining their tests with the CA19-9 test could be used to refer patients for MRIs or CT scans that could make a definitive diagnosis, they said.
"The test could thereby diagnose more patients with pancreatic cancer -- some of them at an early stage -- and thus have a potential to increase the number of patients that can be operated on and possibly cured of pancreatic cancer," the researchers said.
These preliminary results need to be validated and their clinical implications understood before the test could be widely used, they said.
William Phelps, program director at the American Cancer Society, said this new test is a good advancement.
"Pancreatic cancer has one of the most dismal prognoses that we have in cancer," he said.
Phelps said he doesn't think the treatments used today are all that effective, even when the cancer is diagnosed early.
"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. We don't have those things for pancreatic cancer yet, but we expect to get them."
Phelps said he thinks, however, the latest research is headed in a promising direction.
Richards added: "It is hoped that, with time, such an approach would allow us to detect pancreatic cancer at a much more survivable stage. Lots of work still needs to be done.
The test needs to be validated much more thoroughly. It is a step in the right direction."