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New research suggests that pancreatic cancer growth rate may allow time for early detection

On Wednesday, October 27, 2010, the prestigious scientific journal Nature published an exciting article describing the development of pancreatic tumors. This article has attracted significant media attention, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is pleased to report that the study was partially conducted in the laboratory of one of our former research grant recipients.

It has been well established that a huge hurdle in treating pancreatic cancer patients is the late timing of diagnosis. For the vast majority of patients, diagnosis takes place when surgical resection is no longer an option, and often these patients already have metastatic disease, or tumor cells that have spread elsewhere in the body.

Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, MD, PhD was the recipient of a 2007 Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Pilot Grant. Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the primary corresponding author of the Nature article. In this study, pancreatic tumors and metastases from seven patients were analyzed for genetic changes that contribute to the development of cancer. It is extremely powerful to be able to directly compare the same patient’s primary pancreatic tumor to metastases from sites such as the liver or lung. This comparison was made possible in this study by patients courageously volunteering to participate in a rapid autopsy program at Johns Hopkins University.

By studying the genetic changes and analyzing the growth rate of the cells, Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue and colleagues were also able to establish, for the first time, a timeline during which the tumor forms and progresses. These processes occur over an extended period of time, suggesting that pancreatic cancer does not immediately grow rapidly or aggressively.

The authors of this study are hopeful that their findings will energize the search for better diagnostic tools, such as imaging methods or the development of biomarkers that could indicate early disease. The knowledge that the tumor is present for many years before wreaking any major havoc on the patient’s health suggests that early detection could vastly improve the outcome of pancreatic cancer patients.

Click here for the scientific abstract of the Nature paper.
Click here for the New York Times article covering this story.

For more information about this study or other questions about pancreatic cancer diagnosis or treatment, please contact a Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Patient and Liaison Services (PALS) Associate toll-free at 877-272-6226 or email pals@pancan.org. PALS Associates are available M-F 7am-5pm Pacific Time.

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