THURSDAY, April 16, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Pancreatic cancer is known as a "silent killer" because it's often detected far too late. But there's hope a new blood test may be able to spot the most common type of pancreatic tumor in its early stages.
In a small study, the test also appeared to be able to accurately identify the stage of pancreatic cancer in patients -- helping to determine the most appropriate treatment, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine said.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 47,000 people die from pancreatic cancer each year. Beloved "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek is currently waging a battle against the disease.
"Right now, the majority of patients who are diagnosed already have metastatic [advanced] disease, so there is a critical need for a test that can not only detect the disease earlier but also accurately tell us who might be at a point where we can direct them to a potentially curative treatment," study co-senior author Erica Carpenter said in a university news release. She directs Penn's Liquid Biopsy Laboratory and is a research assistant professor of medicine.
"If validated [in a larger group of patients], this test could not only provide a key tool for at-risk patients, but also a monitoring tool for patients with certain known risk factors like BRCA mutations," Carpenter said.
The researchers found that the test -- known as a liquid biopsy -- was more accurate at detecting pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) than any other known biomarker alone. A biomarker is a measurable substance in a blood test or other form of testing.
In a test of 20 patients with PDAC and 27 people who were cancer-free, the test was 92% accurate in detecting the cancer, which is better than the best known biomarker, CA19-9 (89%).
The liquid biopsy was also more accurate at staging the cancer compared to the use of radiological scans, the research team reported. The blood test was 84% accurate in determining the stage of pancreatic cancer, compared with 64% for imaging alone.
The study was published April 16 in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.
According to the study team, PDAC is the most common form of pancreatic cancer and the third leading cause of cancer deaths. The five-year survival rate is just 9%, and most patients live less than one year after diagnosis.
If the cancer is detected early, patients may be able to have surgery to remove the cancer, which can cure them, but it's difficult to catch the cancer before it's progressed or spread.
Patients whose cancer hasn't spread beyond the pancreas, but who still can't have surgery due to the size or location of the tumor, typically undergo three months of chemotherapy or radiation, and then are reassessed to determine if surgery is an option.
For patients whose pancreatic cancer has spread, there are currently no treatments that could cure them.
Dr. Wasif Saif is deputy physician-in-chief and medical director at the Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Lake Success, N.Y. Reading over the new findings, he noted that needle biopsy is currently "the gold standard to diagnose and stage the [pancreatic] tumor," but even then, accuracy is inadequate.
"The current study offers a potential of liquid biopsy in pancreatic cancer as diagnostic tool and warrants further research in this field," Saif said. "Liquid biopsy is usually defined as a sample of blood to look for cancer cells from a tumor that are circulating in the blood, or for pieces of DNA from tumor cells that are in the blood."
The American Cancer Society has more on pancreatic cancer.
SOURCES: Wasif Saif, M.D., deputy physician-in-chief and medical director, Northwell Health Cancer Institute, Lake Success, N.Y.; University of Pennsylvania, news release, April 16, 2020