Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Research

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Research of pancreatic cancer early detection methods is critical to improving patient outcomes

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Today, there is no established way or test to find pancreatic cancer early in the general population. Early detection is critical to increasing survival.

For eligible patients, surgery is the best option for long-term survival of pancreatic cancer. It can increase a patient’s survival by about ten-fold. But most patients are diagnosed at later stages and cannot have surgery.

In addition, although 15-20% of pancreatic cancer patients may be eligible for surgery, data shows that up to half of those patients are told they are ineligible. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network strongly recommends you see a surgeon who performs a high volume of pancreatic surgeries (more than 15 per year) to determine eligibility.

So, many scientists are researching early detection for pancreatic cancer. Focus areas include:

  • Tumor markers, including blood tests
  • Improving imaging
  • Study of those at high risk

Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, and most cases are sporadic, or have no known cause. Screening tests for new early detection tools need to be conducted on people with an elevated risk for the disease.

Pancreatic Cancer Markers

A biomarker is a substance found in the body that can be measured. Biomarkers may:

  • Vary in amount between a healthy person and someone with a disease
  • Be found in samples of blood, tissue (from a biopsy), urine, saliva or other substances in the body
  • Be proteins, pieces of DNA, sugars or other molecules
  • Aid in diagnosing a disease

Researchers across the world – including Pancreatic Cancer Action Network research grant recipients – are striving to find biomarkers that show a person may have undiagnosed pancreatic cancer. These studies look at:

  • Blood samples
  • Proteins in pancreatic fluid
  • Genes and gene changes

There are now commercially available blood tests that may be able to detect pancreatic cancer. The blood tests look at panels of biomarkers that came from the tumor, changes in DNA or markers of the immune system’s response to the tumor.

While blood tests may signify the possible presence of the disease, they cannot lead to a definitive pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Additional tests, like imaging and biopsies, are necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

Pancreatic cancer blood tests are being developed to help early detection.

Pancreatic Cyst Analysis

Only a subset of pancreatic cysts, growths filled with fluid, will become cancer. But for those with high-risk cysts, early surgery to remove the cyst can offer the best opportunity to potentially avoid its progression to cancer.

Researchers are studying genetic and proteomic (protein) alterations in the fluid removed from a patient’s cyst. This will help identify which patients have high-risk cysts and would benefit from surgery.

Improving Imaging

New imaging techniques are also showing promise in detecting pancreatic cancer in its early stages.

Researchers are working to devise new techniques to better image the pancreas, as well as improve standard imaging methods. For example, researchers are using mathematical modeling to better detect and categorize pancreatic tumors and assess treatment response in real time.

Screening and Learning from High-risk Groups

People who are at a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than the general population are good subjects for screening and studying. High-risk groups that researchers know about now and are studying include people with:

Early Detection Studies Enrolling Patients

Surveillance studies throughout the country enroll people at high risk. In these programs, doctors actively monitor participants with imaging and other tests to detect changes in the pancreas. PanCAN Patient Services can give you more information about these studies.

Diabetes and Pancreatic Cencer

Researching patients with new-onset diabetes may help pancreatic cancer early detection effortsFor a small portion of people who develop diabetes over age 50, their diabetes is an early symptom of pancreatic cancer.

Researchers are looking at this relationship to find clues to help detect pancreatic cancer sooner in people with new-onset diabetes.

This is the first opportunity to focus on people whose pancreatic cancer is not inherited or caused by known genetic syndromes. And, these findings may also lead to early detection in those who develop pancreatic cancer but do not develop new-onset diabetes.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and others are working toward an early detection strategy for people with new-onset diabetes.

Government Support of Pancreatic Cancer Early Detection Research

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) funds and has brought together new research teams working to improve pancreatic cancer early detection.

The NCI also identified early detection as a critical research area after the passage of the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act (RCRA) in 2013. The RCRA was passed thanks to a large-scale grassroots effort by passionate Pancreatic Cancer Action Network advocates.

The RCRA’s passage spurred the NCI to create a scientific framework, or strategic plan, dedicated to pancreatic cancer research efforts and priorities. Detecting the disease earlier was highlighted as an urgent need.

Current Early Detection Research Studies

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has funded many early detection research grants. These grantees and other scientists are hard at work determining the best strategies to improve outcomes and increase options for pancreatic cancer patients through better early detection tools.

Educational Webinars

Click here to register for upcoming educational webinars and to see recordings of past webinars, covering topics such as diagnosis, early detection, pancreatic cancer genetics and more.

We’re Here to Help

For more information about risk factors and early detection as well as resources and information to help patients and caregivers cope with all aspects of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, contact PanCAN Patient Services.

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Information provided by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Inc. (“PanCAN”) is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or other health care services. PanCAN may provide information to you about physicians, products, services, clinical trials or treatments related to pancreatic cancer, but PanCAN does not recommend nor endorse any particular health care resource. In addition, please note any personal information you provide to PanCAN’s staff during telephone and/or email communications may be stored and used to help PanCAN achieve its mission of assisting patients with, and finding cures and treatments for, pancreatic cancer. Stored constituent information may be used to inform PanCAN programs and activities. Information also may be provided in aggregate or limited formats to third parties to guide future pancreatic cancer research and education efforts. PanCAN will not provide personal directly identifying information (such as your name or contact information) to such third parties without your prior written consent unless required or permitted by law to do so. For more information on how we may use your information, you can find our privacy policy on our website at