On This Page:
- Pancreatic Cancer Markers
- Improving Imaging
- Screening and Learning from High-risk Groups
- Government Support of Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Research
Today, there is no established way or test to find pancreatic cancer early. But early detection is critical to increasing survival.
For eligible patients, surgery is the best option for long-term survival of pancreatic cancer. It can increase a patient’s survival by about ten-fold. But most patients are diagnosed at later stages and cannot have surgery.
In addition, although 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients may be eligible for surgery, data shows that up to half of those patients are told they are ineligible. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends you see a surgeon who performs a high volume of pancreatic surgeries (more than 15 per year) to determine eligibility.
So, many scientists are researching early detection for pancreatic cancer. Focus areas include:
- Tumor markers, including blood tests
- Improving imaging
- Study of those at high risk
Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, and most cases are sporadic, or have no known cause. Screening tests for new early detection tools need to be conducted on people with an elevated risk for the disease.
Pancreatic Cancer Markers
A biomarker is a substance found in the body that can be measured. Biomarkers may:
- Vary in amount between a healthy person and someone with a disease
- Be found in samples of blood, tissue (from a biopsy), urine, saliva or other substances in the body
- Be proteins, pieces of DNA, sugars or other molecules
- Aid in diagnosing a disease
Researchers across the world – including Pancreatic Cancer Action Network research grant recipients – are striving to find biomarkers that show a person may have undiagnosed pancreatic cancer. These studies look at:
- Blood samples
- Proteins in pancreatic fluid
- Genes and gene changes
While promising, many of these studies are in the early testing stages and need much more investigation before they can be used to accurately detect pancreatic cancer.
A diagnostic test involving any biomarker must be able to distinguish between a person with pancreatic cancer and an unaffected person with near 100 percent accuracy. Results must also be confirmed in large patient populations.
It is doubtful that one marker alone will be specific enough to reliably diagnose all types of pancreatic cancer. More likely, a group of markers will be combined to create an accurate test.
Pancreatic Cancer Blood Tests
Blood tests, or liquid biopsies, to noninvasively detect cancer earlier are a focus of research.
Many biomarker projects begin by comparing blood from patients who have the disease to blood from healthy people. Blood samples can contain abnormal proteins, sugars or pieces of DNA that come from cancer cells in the body. The hope is that this information can lead to an early diagnosis or prognostic information.
Blood tests are being developed that can differentiate people with or without pancreatic cancer. But more work is needed to use these to develop an early detection strategy.
The next step is to see whether these tests can identify cancer in people who have not yet been diagnosed. This would need a prospective (forward-looking) trial in people at high risk.
Pancreatic Cyst Analysis
Only a subset of pancreatic cysts, growths filled with fluid, will become cancer. But for those with high-risk cysts, early surgery to remove the cyst can offer the best opportunity to potentially avoid its progression to cancer.
Researchers are studying genetic and proteomic (protein) alterations in the fluid removed from a patient’s cyst. This will help identify which patients have high-risk cysts and would benefit from surgery.
New imaging techniques are also showing promise in detecting pancreatic cancer in its early stages.
Researchers are working to devise new techniques to better image the pancreas, as well as improve standard imaging methods. For example, researchers are using mathematical modeling to better detect and categorize pancreatic tumors and assess treatment response in real time.
Screening and Learning from High-risk Groups
People who are at a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than the general population are good subjects for screening and studying. High-risk groups that researchers know about now and are studying include people with:
- Family history of pancreatic cancer
- Certain genetic mutations
- Chronic pancreatitis (swelling of the pancreas)
- New-onset diabetes
Early Detection Studies Enrolling Patients
Surveillance studies throughout the country enroll people at high risk. In these programs, doctors actively monitor participants with imaging and other tests to detect changes in the pancreas. Patient Central can give you more information about these studies.
Diabetes and Pancreatic Cencer
For a small portion of people who develop diabetes over age 50, their diabetes is an early symptom of pancreatic cancer.
Researchers are looking at this relationship to find clues to help detect pancreatic cancer sooner in people with new-onset diabetes.
This is the first opportunity to focus on people whose pancreatic cancer is not inherited or caused by known genetic syndromes. And, these findings may also lead to early detection in those who develop pancreatic cancer but do not develop new-onset diabetes.
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and others are working toward an early detection strategy for people with new-onset diabetes.
Government Support of Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Research
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) funds and has brought together new research teams working to improve pancreatic cancer early detection.
The NCI also identified early detection as a critical research area after the passage of the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act (RCRA) in 2013. The RCRA was passed thanks to a large-scale grassroots effort by passionate Pancreatic Cancer Action Network advocates.
The RCRA’s passage spurred the NCI to create a scientific framework, or strategic plan, dedicated to pancreatic cancer research efforts and priorities. Detecting the disease earlier was highlighted as an urgent need.
Current Early Detection Research Studies
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has funded many early detection research grants. These grantees and other scientists are hard at work determining the best strategies to improve outcomes and increase options for pancreatic cancer patients through better early detection tools.
Early Detection Video
We’re Here to Help
For more information about risk factors and early detection as well as resources and information to help patients and caregivers cope with all aspects of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, contact Patient Central.
Early Detection Research News