A team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), recently published a study evaluating a new strategy to analyze blood samples to search for clues indicating the presence of pancreatic cancer.

Patients whose pancreatic cancer is diagnosed early have a higher chance of long-term survival and increased access to treatment options, including surgery.

However, there is currently no standard screening program or effective early detection strategy for pancreatic cancer. Researchers and organizations like the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) are dedicated to identifying ways to effectively diagnose the disease earlier and improve patient outcomes.

The new study from the UCSD team analyzed blood samples from people who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and compared them to blood from healthy individuals. Specifically, they isolated small particles, called exosomes, from the blood samples. Exosomes are tiny fluid-filled sacs that contain protein and genetic material called RNA, which can contain information signifying the presence of disease.

Previous work, such as a project conducted at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has also focused on exosomes as a biomarker, or detectable and measurable substance that can indicate what’s happening inside a person’s body. And earlier this year, a large-scale study was published from Johns Hopkins looking at protein and DNA levels in blood to determine the presence and location of cancer in participants.

The recent study employed a technologically advanced microchip to isolate and evaluate the exosomes found in participants’ blood samples. The research team asserts that this strategy allows rapid and accurate evaluation of the samples. Looking at blood samples from 20 patients with pancreatic cancer and comparing them to samples from 11 healthy individuals yielded an 82 percent specificity (rate of correctly indicating those with the disease) and 99 percent sensitivity (rate of accurately identifying those without pancreatic cancer).

It’s important to note that this study evaluated blood samples from individuals who had already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, whereas an effective early detection strategy would have to differentiate people with very early stages of the disease – or even precancerous abnormalities.

The critical next step for this or any experimental early detection test is to determine whether the analysis is sensitive and specific enough to accurately and consistently detect the disease before other methods. To accomplish this, a population considered at high risk for pancreatic cancer would need to be screened and monitored.

“This new study represents an important proof-of-principle that exosomes can be experimentally isolated and analyzed for the presence of pancreatic cancer,” said Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, chief science officer at PanCAN. “But we’ll have to wait for a forward-looking study to find out whether abnormal exosomes are present in earlier-stage or even precancerous disease.”

She added: “We will continue to conduct, support and monitor early detection studies to improve our ability to diagnose patients in the earlier, more treatable stages of pancreatic cancer.”

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