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Blood Test Could Help Detect Pancreatic Cancer Earlier

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 20 Oct 2023
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Image: An investigational blood test might one day help doctors detect pancreatic cancer earlier (Photo courtesy of 123RF)
Image: An investigational blood test might one day help doctors detect pancreatic cancer earlier (Photo courtesy of 123RF)

Pancreatic cancer ranks high among the main causes of cancer-related deaths, following lung and colon cancer. The number of cases and fatalities linked to pancreatic cancer continues to rise every year. Unfortunately, only around 11% of people diagnosed with this cancer survive the past five years. One significant challenge to improving these bleak statistics is late-stage diagnosis, which often occurs because the pancreas is situated deep in the abdominal area, not causing noticeable early symptoms like pain or inflammation. Past methods of diagnosis, which involved imaging and measuring levels of a cancer antigen known as CA 19-9, have been largely ineffective and can even yield misleading results. Now, a simple blood test has the potential to detect this often late-diagnosed disease much earlier.

In a major development that may improve survival rates for this particularly lethal cancer, a multinational research team, including scientists from City of Hope (Duarte, CA, USA), has developed an investigational blood test that could detect pancreatic cancer at the earlier stages. Researchers from the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan developed and tested a panel of biomarkers that identifies tiny fragments of RNA genetic material, called circular RNA or circRNA, which break away from pancreatic cancer cells and circulate in the blood. Circular RNAs are more stable and last longer than linear RNAs, and are also plentiful in the bloodstream. Advances in genetic sequencing technology that have taken place only in recent years can now help to accurately detect, process and analyze circRNA.

To discover effective biomarkers for pancreatic cancer based on circRNA, the research team conducted a thorough review of patient samples using genome-wide expression profiling. They identified five candidate biomarkers that could differentiate pancreatic cancer tumors from normal adjacent tissue, particularly in early-stage patients. These biomarkers were then used to create a blood-based panel test, essentially a non-invasive liquid biopsy, for early detection of pancreatic cancer. According to their study, the diagnostic accuracy of this test was very reliable. Moreover, its predictive performance saw significant improvements when used alongside the existing CA 19-9 test. Liquid biopsy tests are more advantageous than traditional tissue-based biopsies for several reasons, including their non-invasive nature, easier sample collection, and reliable results, thus providing a valuable tool for early cancer detection and patient management.

“These data highlight the urgent, unmet clinical need to identify and develop diagnostic methods that could precisely detect pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages, when the disease is still confined to the pancreas and surgical resection is still an option,” said Ajay Goel, Ph.D., M.S., AGAF, the study’s senior author.

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