The prospect of a simple blood test for pancreatic cancer – a disease with a poor survival rate because it is hard to detect in the early stages – steps closer as another team of cancer researchers finds more potential biomarkers for the disease.

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Researchers have found that the blood of pancreatic cancer patients contains high levels of microRNAs, a finding which would lead to a potential blood test for the disease.

The pancreas is hidden behind other organs like the stomach and intestines, making it hard to spot early signs and symptoms. Currently, only around 6% of people with pancreatic cancer live more than 5 years after diagnosis, which, in the majority of cases, only detects the cancer after it has started to spread.

The National Cancer Institute estimate that in 2014, over 46,400 Americans will discover they have pancreatic cancer, and the disease will claim over 39,500 lives.

In the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) in Indianapolis report how they found the blood of pancreatic cancer patients contained high levels of several microRNAs.

MicroRNAs are small molecules that help to regulate gene expression in normal and cancer cells.

The study follows another recently published report where researchers suggested higher blood levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) could also form the basis of a blood test for pancreatic cancer.

Senior author Murray Korc, a professor of cancer research, explains the IUSM’s study’s unique contribution:

The key new feature here is that there is a panel of microRNAs that can be measured accurately in the plasma component of blood to determine if a patient has pancreatic cancer.”

The panel of biomarkers he refers to comprises three microRNAs: miRNA-10b, miRNA-155, and miRNA-106b. He and his team found increased expression of these molecules in blood plasma appears to be a highly accurate indicator of the presence of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) – the most common type of pancreatic cancer.

For their pilot study, the team examined plasma and bile from 77 patients with PDAC, 67 with chronic pancreatitis and 71 healthy controls, and compared their levels of expression of 10 candidate microRNAs.

Their analysis showed “increased expression of miRNA-10b, -155, and -106b in plasma appears highly accurate in diagnosing PDAC.”

While more studies need to be done to confirm and extend the findings, Prof. Korc believes they could lead to a simple blood test to screen individuals who are at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

“We are planning to conduct such studies,” he adds, “It will be important to identify additional markers and to assess how useful a panel of such markers would be for the early diagnosis of this cancer.”

He says such a test might also prove useful as a way to distinguish between pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped fund the study.