Due to the lack of reliable early detection methods, the vast majority of pancreatic cancer cases are diagnosed once the disease has spread locally or widely throughout the body. Patients whose disease is diagnosed when it’s still confined in the pancreas have the best chance for long-term survival, which is why improved early detection strategies are urgently needed for pancreatic cancer.

A paper, entitled “Glypican-1 identifies cancer exosomes and detects early pancreatic cancer,” was published online in the prestigious journal Nature on June 24, 2015, and describes a promising, potential pancreatic cancer early detection biomarker. A biomarker is a molecular clue inside the body that can be detected and measured, providing useful information.

The paper reports that pancreatic cancer cells emit small particles called exosomes, which contain DNA and proteins. Unexpectedly, the research team from MD Anderson and abroad found that pancreatic cancer-derived exosomes contain significant levels of a protein called glypican-1 (GPC1), which is detectable at much higher levels in blood samples from pancreatic cancer patients, compared to healthy individuals. Even people with other pancreatic diseases, like chronic pancreatitis, had levels of GPC1 similar to healthy individuals, suggesting that its presence may be specific to cancer. Moreover, higher levels of GPC1-positive exosomes were found in every pancreatic cancer patient that was evaluated. By contrast, GPC1-positive exosomes were detectable in some, but not all, breast cancer samples analyzed.

In addition to blood samples from patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, the research team analyzed samples from five individuals with confirmed precancerous abnormalities in their pancreas. Encouragingly, these samples were distinguishable from healthy control individuals, suggesting that this method of detecting and measuring GPC1-positive exosomes in blood samples holds promise for the earlier detection of pancreatic cancer.

It is important to note that these results, while promising, are preliminary and have not been verified in a prospective, or forward-looking, study. More research will be necessary to determine whether the authors’ results can be confirmed as well as whether and how detection of GPC1-positive exosomes could be standardized for use in a clinical setting, rather than in a laboratory.

For more information about this article, please refer to the press release issued by the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

For information about pancreatic cancer diagnosis, treatment and other patient services, please call 877-272-6226, Monday – Friday, 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. PT, or complete our contact form.