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Pancreas cells detected in bloodstream in early stages of pancreatic cancer

2 May 2014

Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System in the US have used a new blood test to detect pancreas cells in the bloodstream.

The test was used in a study of 51 patients and these “circulating pancreas cells” (CPCs) were found in 33 per cent of patients with early pancreatic lesions but who had not yet had a clinical diagnosis of cancer.

The research findings suggest that CPCs are in the bloodstream before tumours can be detected using current methods such as CT and MRI scans. The data suggest it is possible that finding pancreas cells in the blood may be an early sign of cancer. This is significant because it was thought that cancer cells are found only in the bloodstream when the disease has progressed and large tumours are present.

Three groups of patients were involved in the study: those without pancreatic cancer; those with pancreatic cancer and those diagnosed with pre-cancerous cystic lesions. Researchers found CPCs in 73 per cent of the patients with cancer and in 33 per cent of the patients with pre-cancerous cystic lesions. None of the 19 cancer-free patients had these cells in their bloodstream.

Lead author, Dr  Andrew Rhim, assistant professor in internal medicine at the U-M Health System and gastroenterologist at the U-M’s Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Clinic said: “Whilst there is much work that still needs to be done, there is great potential for using this technology to identify who is most at risk for developing pancreatic cancer.”

The researchers will now look at the genes that make up the CPCs taken from patients with pre-cancerous pancreatic lesions. “If these cells represent the earliest forms of cancer, we predict they would possess many of the genetic anomalies we typically see in pancreatic tumours,” says Dr Rhim.

A clinical trial has been started to see if this gene analysis can predict which patients at risk of pancreatic cancer will go on to develop tumours.

Maggie Blanks, CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund said: “Dr Stacey Coleman, whose PhD at Barts Cancer Institute was funded by PCRF, has secured a three-year position in Dr Rhim’s laboratory. It’s good to know that Stacey will continue her own research into pancreatic cancer with another internationally-renowned group.”

The findings have been published in the journal Gastroenterology:


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