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Pancreatic Cancer Health Center

Can a Saliva Test Spot Early Pancreatic Cancer?

Early Research Suggests Bacteria in the Mouth May One Day Help Diagnose Pancreatic Cancer
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 12, 2011 -- A simple saliva test may one day help doctors diagnose people with pancreatic cancer before it has spread.

As of now, there is no early screening test for pancreatic cancer. There often are no symptoms until the cancer has begun to spread, which accounts for its poor survival rate. 

New research in the journal Gut suggests that saliva -- and the bacteria it contains -- may hold the key to an earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. 

According to the study, there are differences in the types and prevalence of certain bacterial strains in the saliva of people with pancreatic cancer.

"We are seeing differences in the bacteria that are colonized in the mouth of patients with pancreatic cancer as opposed to other pancreatic diseases," says study researcher James J. Farrell, MD. He is the medical director of the Pancreas Center at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "This piece of data adds another brick in the wall of what is going on with oral health and pancreatic cancer."

But experts not connected with the study are quick to caution that such a test for pancreatic cancer is not ready for prime time.

The pancreas, a long, flat gland that lies in the abdomen behind the stomach, produces enzymes that help with digestion and certain hormones that maintain the proper level of blood sugar.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 44,030 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S. in 2011, and 37,660 people will die from this disease in 2011.

Early Screening Test for Pancreatic Cancer

A test that could diagnose pancreatic cancer early or even in its precancerous stages is the Holy Grail, Farrell tells WebMD.

Researchers are now trying to validate some of these indicators identified in the study see if they could be used as an early detection tool for pancreatic cancer. In the future, "a saliva test which is less invasive than a blood test or endoscopy may be used as a broad screening test to pick out patients who would need further screening," he says.

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