Test May Help Spot Pancreatic Cancer
New Technique Uses Light to Check Cells Without Major Surgery
Aug. 1, 2007 -- A new, no-surgery test may help detect pancreatic cancer in
its earlier, more treatable stages, scientists announced today.
The test isn't ready for patients yet. But if successful in other studies,
it may help people survive pancreatic cancer, which is America's fourth leading
cause of cancer deaths.
The American Cancer Society predicts that this year in the U.S., about
37,170 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 33,370 will
die of pancreatic cancer.
"One of the reasons for this grim prognosis for patients is that we
still don't know how to detect it early enough," Northwestern University
biomedical engineering professor Vadim Backman, PhD, said in a news conference
Early detection can make a big difference in survival, and Backman's team
wants to improve patients' chances with their new test, which is described in
today's edition of Clinical Cancer Research.
Pancreatic Cancer Theory
The scientists' theory boils down to this simple idea: When pancreatic
cancer starts, there goes the neighborhood.
That is, pancreatic cancer is associated with subtle changes in neighboring
cells in the duodenum, which is part of the small intestine.
Here's why that's important. Taking biopsies from the pancreas carries a
high risk of complications. But the duodenum can be reached with a simple,
nonsurgical procedure called an upper endoscopy.
In an upper endoscopy, doctors insert a thin tube into the sedated patient's
mouth and guide the tube down the esophagus, through the stomach, and to the
"It was, in a sense, a fishing expedition, because the pancreas and the
duodenum are two different organs," Backman says. "There was a big
question of if we would able to sense any differences in the otherwise normal
duodenal tissue that would correlate with the presence of pancreatic
New Pancreatic Cancer Test
Backman's team gave upper endoscopies to 19 people who had already been
diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and to 32 people without pancreatic
The scientists took small tissue samples (biopsies) from each person's
duodenum and examined those biopsies in their lab.
This was no ordinary lab test. The researchers used a bright light and a
special microscope to check for optical markers -- essentially, a fingerprint
-- linked to pancreatic cancer.
All of the participants had duodenal cells that looked healthy under a
normal microscope, even if they had pancreatic cancer.
But when the scientists put those cells in the spotlight through their
special microscope, they noticed extremely small architectural differences in
the duodenal cells of the pancreatic cancer patients.
Those changes were so tiny that they're invisible to a normal microscope.
But they couldn't hide from the new test. Spotting those changes may signal
pancreatic cancer earlier, note Backman and colleagues.
Goal: Earlier Diagnosis
The new test isn't designed to diagnose pancreatic cancer by itself.
Instead, it's supposed to help doctors determine which patients need further
"We envision it as an initial screening test in patients who otherwise
do not have symptoms," says Backman.
The study is preliminary. Further tests are needed in larger groups of
patients, including those with noncancerous pancreatic conditions, note the
Ultimately, the researchers hope to refine the technology to eliminate the
need for duodenal biopsies.
The researchers have partnered with a company called American BioOptics to
develop the technology, according to a National Science Foundation news