Biomarkers May Offer New Hope for Pancreatic Cancer Screening

Several new genetic risk markers in pancreatic cancer have been found, scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute announced.

Brian Wolpin, MD, MPH

Several new genetic risk markers in pancreatic cancer have been found, scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute announced.

In a large DNA analysis, known as the PanScan III study, 7683 patients with pancreatic cancer and 14,397 control patients without this cancer from the United States, Canada, and Australia were analyzed. Researchers used sequencing technology to examine more than 700,000 sites of the genome known to have single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).

The results of the study confirmed the presence of four risk-associated SNPs that had been identified in a previous, smaller genome-wide association study. In addition, five new risk markers were discovered and a sixth that was of borderline statistical significance.

“Currently there is no population screening program for pancreatic cancer which, in 80% of cases, is discovered when it’s too late to allow curative surgery—the cancer has already spread,” Brian Wolpin, MD, MPH, first author of the study, said in a statement. “The only healthy individuals currently screened for pancreatic cancer are members of high-risk families due to multiple family members with pancreatic cancer. “But the field has been struggling to find factors that can identify people at highest risk in the general population, when a strong family history is not present.”

The risks linked to each SNP or marker were largely independent and additive, so that they may have utility in future attempts to identify individuals in the general population at higher risk for pancreatic cancer. The average lifetime risk of pancreatic cancer is 1.5%.

The long-term goal is to create a “risk stratification tool” that could be used in primary care practice to identify individuals who should undergo screening for pancreatic cancer with tests such as ultrasound or MRI.