The pancreas is an extremely vital organ in the human body. Being part of the endocrine system, it produces several important hormones, including insulin (required for glucose metabolism) and glucagon (a hormone involved in the storage of glucose). It also secretes digestive enzymes required to break down the food we eat.
Pancreatic cancer is often found too late
Without the pancreas, we would not be able to perform any of these processes, making life much more difficult. Pancreatic cancer is a condition where that may can, and unfortunately, it’s often not recognized until the disease has reached advanced stages, making it near impossible for surgical removal.
Pancreatic cancer currently affects over 53,000 people in the United States and is the fourth leading cause of death every year.
However, new research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has identified a biomarker that could make early detection of pancreatic cancer a possibility.
“Starting with our cell model that mimics human pancreatic cancer progression, we identified released proteins, then tested and validated a subset of these proteins as potential plasma biomarkers of this cancer,” said Ken Zaret, Ph.D., director of the Penn Institute for Regenerative Medicine who led the study.
Early recognition now possible
The researchers are optimistic that these biomarkers can be easily detected by performing a blood test on the suspected subject. It can even be done on those thought to be at increased risk of pancreatic cancer, like people who have a family history of the condition or who had sudden onset diabetes after the age of 50.
The biomarker linked to pancreatic cancer is called plasma thromobospondin-2 (THBS2). It can be detected using inexpensive, commercially available protein detection assays. Also, when THBS2 is combined with a late stage pancreatic biomarker called CA19-9, it reliably detected pancreatic cancer in patients.
After much refinement, the research team was able to develop a method that would allow for independent investigation of plasma samples to detect different stages of cancer.
“Early detection of cancer has had a critical influence on lessening the impact of many types of cancer, including breast, colon, and cervical cancer. A long-standing concern has been that patients with pancreatic cancer are often not diagnosed until it is too late for the best chance at effective treatment,” said Robert Vonderheide, MD, director of the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) at the University of Pennsylvania.