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Can a Saliva Test Spot Early Pancreatic Cancer?

Early Research Suggests Bacteria in the Mouth May One Day Help Diagnose Pancreatic Cancer
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.

The researchers first found differences in the bacteria in the spit of 10 people with pancreatic cancer, which had not yet spread, and 10 people without pancreatic cancer. Next, they analyzed saliva from 28 pancreatic cancer patients and 28 healthy people to verify their findings. 

They also compared these findings with those from 27 people who had chronic inflammation of the pancreas, a condition that may increase risk for pancreatic cancer.

Two types of bacteria, Neisseria elongata and Streptococcus mitis, were less common in people with pancreatic cancer. Levels of another bacteria species, Granulicatella adjacens, were significantly higher among people with pancreatic cancer.

Whether these bacteria are causing pancreatic cancer or merely reflecting its presence it is not known, but researchers suspect it is the former.

"We don't have a handle on this yet, but we suspect that the inciting event is the colonization or alteration of bacteria in the mouth," Farrell says.

This isn't the first time that gum disease has been linked to health problems elsewhere in the body. Gum infection causes inflammation in the mouth, and body-wide inflammation is also linked to many diseases including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain cancers.

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