Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any common cancers, with only 3% of those diagnosed with it expected to live for longer than five years. This is mainly due to the lack of symptoms and thus late diagnosis, when the disease has already spread to other parts of the body, ruling out the option of surgery. Researchers from Queen Mary University have, however, discovered a new biomarker – a set of three proteins – which has the potential to lead to a new diagnostic test that could detect early-stage pancreatic cancer.
“The research that is published today confirms the identification of biomarkers in urine that could be a definitive indication of whether someone has pancreatic cancer, or doesn’t,” Maggie Blanks, the founder and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, who funded this research, explained to IFLScience. “To develop a test for a disease, you need to actually have found what it’s going to be looking for. That’s what this work has been about. Anything that gets us to earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer will help make more people eligible for surgery, which can be important as a potential treatment.”
By looking at the levels of these three proteins in urine, the scientists found that they are elevated in people with the disease. They hope that this could lead to a non-invasive, inexpensive test to screen those considered at high risk of developing the cancer. The biomarker proteins were even shown to be able to distinguish between pancreatic cancer and the inflammatory chronic condition pancreatitis, which are often difficult to tell apart.
“We've always been keen to develop a diagnostic test in urine as it has several advantages over using blood. It's an inert and far less complex fluid than blood and can be repeatedly and non-invasively tested,” explained Dr. Tatjana Crnogorac-Jurcevic, who led the study published in Clinical Cancer Research.
The researchers looked through over 1,500 proteins found in the urine of around 500 people, some of whom were healthy and some of whom had pancreatic cancer. This ultimately led to the identification of three specific proteins – LYVE1, REG1A, and TFF1 – which are found in higher levels in those with pancreatic cancer. The researchers hope that while this cancer is often not diagnosed until stage four, the last and most severe stage, a test based on these biomarkers could diagnose people at stage one or two.
But while Fiona Osgun from Cancer Research UK praises the research into pancreatic cancer, which is often neglected, and the novel use of these biomarkers, she also urges caution. “I think that it’s important to point out that this is still quite early-stage research, and although this looks like it can tell the difference between healthy individuals and people with pancreatic cancer, we’re still talking about a fairly small sample size. And then we need to see if that would work in real life situations when we’re actually looking at diagnosing people,” she told IFLScience.