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Promising pancreatic cancer screening marker found

28 April 2011

Proteins found in blood serum can distinguish cancer from non-cancerous conditions, according to new research.

Proteins found in blood serum can distinguish cancer from non-cancerous conditions, according to research published by the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Researchers have identified a protein that shows distinct changes in structure between pancreatic cancer, non-cancerous diseases and normal blood serum. Further changes are seen between early and advanced stages of the disease.

The discovery suggests a blood test could serve as a potential screening method to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier – there therefore potentially more treatable - stage.

“One of the difficulties in screening for pancreatic cancer is distinguishing it from other conditions, such as diabetes or pancreatitis. There is not a good marker currently that can do that. Ultimately, we need to detect earlier stages of pancreatic cancer that can be operated on and treated.” said senior study author David M. Lubman, Ph.D.

The research team studied a protein in the blood, haptoglobin, that is fairly abundant. Haptoglobin is a type of glycoprotein, a category of proteins that has complex chains of sugar groups attached to it. These sugar groups are highly regulated in normal cells but develop a different structure in cancer cells.

The study, published online in the Journal of Proteome Research, looked at a total of 31 blood serum samples from disease-free controls, patients with chronic pancreatitis, patients with diabetes and patients with varying stages of pancreatic cancer.

Because haptoglobin appears in abundance in blood serum, it is easy to pull out and isolate from the blood serum with an antibody. The researchers could then examine the structure of the sugar groups from the haptoglobin in the serum. They found clear changes in the structure of the sugar groups from serum samples of pancreatic cancer versus non-cancerous disease, with distinct changes in structure or the amount of each structure present for each stage of pancreatic cancer versus pancreatitis, diabetes or normal samples.

Researchers are continuing to refine the markers to allow them to distinguish early stage pancreatic cancer. They also hope to develop a method of evaluating hundreds of samples at once. This could lead to a screening test for patients in high risk groups – those with a family history of pancreatic cancer, those who are obese or smoke, and people with long-term diabetes or pancreatitis.

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