Test May Help Spot Pancreatic Cancer

New Technique Uses Light to Check Cells Without Major Surgery

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 01, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

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 today.

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 small intestine.

"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 cancer."

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 cancer.

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 testing.

"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 researchers.

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 release.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Liu, Y. Clinical Cancer Research, Aug. 1, 2007; vol 13: pp 4392-4399. Vadim Backman, PhD, professor, biomedical engineering department, Northwestern University. American Cancer Society: "How Many People Get Pancreatic Cancer?"

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info