Pancreatic cancer is among the most deadly malignancies, yet we have few ways to detect it. Disease symptoms typically don’t appear until very late stages. Of the 53,000 men and women who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, only about 7 percent of them will live past 2022.
What if we could detect the disease ahead of time — if a pancreatic cancer test became ubiquitous, like a prostate exam or mammogram? If survival outpaced mortality, and we could help save the 43,000 people who die each year from this vicious disease?
New research could make it possible, thanks to the potential of human blood.
Our blood tells stories about our lives — details like our DNA, cholesterol and blood pressure — but it can also predict when foreign attackers like cancer might invade. That’s why researchers have started to use blood tests to detect several cancer types (such as those of the colon, lung and ovaries). Many of those studies take place at Baylor Scott & White Health as part of a 2015 collaboration between Baylor Scott & White Health and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).
Biomarkers: A Future Screening Tool
Thanks to the collaboration, we’ve launched a pilot project to look for biomarkers, or small indicators in the blood that may forecast pancreatic cancer. The project, “Integrated Genomic Biomarkers (indicators of the severity or presence of disease state) for the Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer” led by Ajay Goel, PhD, director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Research at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, sets out to detect the earliest stage of pancreatic cancer without false positives. By reading and comparing the DNA and RNA of patients with pancreatic cancer — along with healthy volunteers and those with pre-cancer lesions — scientists hope to identify genetic clues to cancer risk. If the pancreas patients all have something in common, it could help us find the right biomarker to use as a future screening tool.
Nearly 4 in 5 patients will have their cancer recur after surgery to remove the tumor. The ability to predict it ahead of time helps physicians create a more aggressive treatment plan, customized for each patient.
If we know that biomarker, the annual blood test (or “liquid biopsy,” as we call it) for pancreatic cancer isn’t too far off. Any patient could get tested during an annual checkup and get notified within days that although they’re fine now, their blood contains the biomarker for pancreatic cancer — meaning they’ll likely develop the cancer in 10, 20 or even 40 years. Biomarker identification and detection will allow care teams to act more quickly against this aggressive disease, ultimately reducing or diminishing the potential advancement of the disease to later stages.
Right now, we’re closely reviewing the blood samples for clues, but we’ve got our magnifying glass on a few biomarkers in particular: ctDNAs (tiny particles shed by tumors into the bloodstream), microRNA (small RNA molecules), lncRNAs (another type of RNA), and DNA methylation (abnormal changes in a person’s DNA).
Once we find the right biomarkers, we can explore their potential for other uses, too — for example, whether they can predict a person’s chance of recurrence following surgery.
It may take a few years to get there, but the goal of our work is to fill an important need for a screening tool that doesn’t currently exist and to ultimately save many more lives.
Learn how you can participate in ongoing research studies at Baylor Scott & White Health.