Pancreatic cancer is the most deadly form of cancer. Each year, 45,000 Americans are diagnosed with it and every year 40,000 people (90 percent) die.
One reason most people don’t survive pancreatic cancer is most of the pain and symptoms don’t appear until the cancer has progressed and treatment comes too late.
Even then, pancreatic cancer is resistant to chemotherapy and radiation. Another reason is that there is not an easy, reliable test for pancreatic cancer — until now.
The pancreas is a small, oblong, flat organ at the back of abdomen between the stomach and the spine. It is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels by producing hormones such as insulin.
The pancreas also produces enzymes for the digestive system that neutralize stomach acid and help break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
While there aren’t many noticeable symptoms at first, as pancreatic cancer advances it can cause abdominal pain, weight loss, nausea, fatigue and jaundice (when the skin, eyes and mucus turn yellow).
Since these symptoms are rather generic, even once someone starts experiencing them it is hard to tell the difference between pancreatic cancer and something benign, such as gallstones or bile duct stones.
While doctors normally use imaging techniques and endoscopies to distinguish between the two, scientists have identified a new marker that can be used to accurately diagnose a pancreatic tumor.
Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic discovered that a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor — or VEGF — plays an important role in the formation and growth of cancerous tumors.
VEGF resides in bile, a fluid secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder that aids the digestion of fats as they move through the digestive system.
Therefore, elevated levels of VEGF indicate the presence of cancer.
To detect pancreatic cancer, the team extracted bile from the pancreas and tested its levels of VEGF. Just like with other cancers, high levels of VEGF did mean there was cancer present.
This test was accurate 93 percent of the time, and it didn’t confuse cancer with other digestive problems.
So far, these preliminary results show that this test is more accurate than other pancreatic cancer tests under development.
Earlier this year, a research team from Copenhagen University Hospital discovered that testing patients’ blood for microRNA, pieces of genetic material, in certain patterns could detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages.
The only downside is the high rate of false positives. Another blood test looks for the presence of a compound called CA19-9, which is elevated in 80 percent of pancreatic cancer patients.
Furthermore, measuring the amount of VEGF in bile is a relatively inexpensive test. It also suggests that drugs targeting VEGF may be worth experimenting with as a way of treating pancreatic cancer.