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Potential Pancreatic Cancer Screening Marker Found


Could a blood test to screen for pancreatic cancer be available someday soon? A research team from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center that has identified a protein called haptoglobin that may be a good marker of the often deadly disease.

Screening for pancreatic cancer is difficult

The American Cancer Society estimated more than 43,000 Americans would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010, and that more than 36,000 would die of the disease. Pancreatic cancer has the unfortunate distinction of having the worst prognosis of any cancer type.

Screening for pancreatic cancer is no easy task, as it is difficult to distinguish the disease from pancreatitis and diabetes, and there is also no reliable marker for the disease. The screening dilemma may change if the results of the new study move forward.

The researchers, led by senior study author David M. Lubman, PhD, Maude T. Lane Professor of Surgical Immunology at the U-M Medical School and a U-M professor surgery, pathology and chemistry, identified a protein called haptoglobin that appears in relatively high levels in the blood. Haptoglobin belongs to a protein group characterized by a sugar-based structure that is regulated in normal cells but that changes its structure in cancer cells.

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The team examined 31 blood serum samples taken from four different groups of subjects: people who were disease-free, patients with chronic pancreatitis, patients with diabetes, and patients with different stages of pancreatic cancer.

When the scientists examined the sugar-based structures in the samples, they discovered they could easily see structural changes in the samples from pancreatic cancer patients compared with samples from the other three groups. They also observed distinct structural changes or differences in changes depending on the stage of pancreatic cancer when compared with samples from the other groups.

The next step, which the researchers are already taking, is to develop a way to evaluate hundreds of blood serum samples at once, which will hopefully lead to a process by which doctors would administer a simple blood test for pancreatic cancer.

Because pancreatic cancer is fairly rare, Lubman explained that “a test like this could potentially be used to screen people who are in high risk groups—those with a family history of pancreatic cancer, people who are obese or smoke, and people who have long-term diabetes or pancreatitis.”

For now, the potential screening test for pancreatic cancer is still under development and not available to the public. However, scientists are continuing their research and will be testing their method in larger samples.

American Cancer Society
University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center