A test that spots pancreatic cancer from a single drop of blood could improve survival rates. The first blood test for early diagnosis of the hard-to-spot disease, it could be available within months.
Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of the common cancers, with 7.3 per cent of patients alive five years after diagnosis, compared to 58.4 per cent of bowel cancer patients and 85 per cent of breast cancer patients.
The disease is one of the hardest to diagnose early. This is partly because the pancreas — a pear-shaped gland that makes digestive juices and hormones including insulin — is hidden behind the stomach, making it difficult for tumours to be felt or seen on scans.
It also doesn’t usually cause symptoms in the early stages — when they do occur, the signs, such as stomach or back pain, weight loss and indigestion, can be vague and easily confused with conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy but their effectiveness hinges on early diagnosis.
Caught early, before the disease has spread to other organs, up to 25 per cent of patients will live for at least five years. If the disease has spread, average survival is two to six months.
The new test, developed by Swedish biotech firm Immunovia and being trialled on 2,000 people at University College London Hospital, and 20 other centres in the U.S., Spain and Sweden, looks for signs of the disease in patient’s blood.
These include different levels of around 30 proteins and other compounds identified by the Swedish scientists.
They provide a distinct chemical fingerprint of the disease.
The test picks out the compounds using antibodies that latch on to individual chemicals: sophisticated scanning equipment is then used to measure their levels.
Previous research shows the test is 96 per cent accurate in spotting people with early-stage pancreatic cancers.
Potential uses of the new test include screening groups of patients at high-risk of the disease, such as those newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes aged 50 and over, as well as picking up, or ruling out, the cancer in people with vague symptoms.
Long-term studies have shown that type 2 diabetes is associated with a one-and-a-half to two-fold increase in the risk of the cancer. It’s thought that this may be due to higher than normal levels of insulin and increased pressure on the pancreas to produce insulin.
The test could also be adapted to diagnose other cancers, including lung cancer.
Commenting on the trial, Alastair Young, who is a consultant pancreaticobiliary surgeon at St James’s University Hospital, Leeds, said: ‘Pancreatic cancer, more than most cancers, needs earlier diagnosis and appropriate treatment without delay.
‘A test like this — that has the potential to help us achieve earlier diagnosis and treatment — would be very welcome. We await the results with great interest.’
Doctors are now looking at another test to detect pancreatic cancer in its earliest stages, using stool samples.
In a trial involving 30 people (some of whom have the disease), researchers at Columbia University in the U.S., will compare the chemical contents of the samples.
DNA testing will be used to detect genetic mutations associated with the disease.