New study evaluates "liquid biopsies" for earlier cancer detection.

Yesterday, a collaborative team of scientists, primarily from Johns Hopkins University, published a paper in the well regarded journal Science, suggesting that the field is a step closer to a liquid biopsy strategy to detect pancreatic and other cancer types earlier.

New study evaluates “liquid biopsies” for earlier cancer detection.

The term “biopsy” dates back to the 19th century, referring to a small piece of tissue that is used for diagnostic purposes. Historically, biopsies were removed via a surgical procedure or through a needle. Much more recently, a new concept has emerged, called “liquid biopsy,” that uses blood samples to gather information leading to a diagnostic or prognostic assessment.

“There are several types of molecules that can be measured in the blood,” said Lynn Matrisian, PhD, MBA, chief science officer at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). “Blood samples can contain abnormal proteins, sugars or even pieces of DNA that come from cancer cells in the body.”

The authors of the paper devised a new test, named CancerSEEK, that searches for certain genetic alterations and protein biomarkers detectable in patients’ blood samples. They applied the test to samples from patients with non-metastatic cancer of the ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, colorectum, lung or breast. Overall, the investigators correctly identified about 70 percent of the cancer cases – and 99 percent of the time, they did not diagnose cancer in healthy individuals.

“An important caveat to this study is that the researchers evaluated blood samples from patients who had already been diagnosed with cancer,” said Matrisian. “To determine if something could qualify as an early detection strategy, it still needs to undergo a step in which it demonstrates it can reliably detect the disease before it’s diagnosed by other methods.”

Improving early detection is a key priority for pancreatic cancer research, and the lack of a standard, effective test is considered a prime reason why the disease has such poor survival rates.

PanCAN’s competitive, peer-reviewed Research Grants Program has funded many projects focused on early detection over the years, including investing $1 million toward new Early Detection Targeted Grants introduced in 2017.

“We are pleased to see increased attention within the research community on early detection approaches for pancreatic cancer,” added Matrisian. “We will be closely watching next steps for CancerSEEK and other experimental techniques – whether novel tests on biological samples or new  imaging strategies – to see which tests are able to accurately find the disease in individuals who have not yet been diagnosed.”

Do you think you might be at high risk for pancreatic cancer? Take our risk assessment test and speak with a PanCAN Patient Services Case Manager about screening programs, genetic counselors, diagnostic methods and more.