A new study reveals how researchers have uncovered a biomarker for pancreatic cancer in patients’ urine, paving the way for a low-cost, noninvasive test that could diagnose the disease in its early stages.

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Researchers found patients with pancreatic cancer had higher levels of three specific proteins in their urine.

Lead researcher Dr. Tatjana Crnogorac-Jurcevic, of the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London in the UK, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

This year, around 48,960 people in the US will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 40,000 individuals will die from the disease.

As with other cancers, the earlier a patient is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the greater their likelihood of successful treatment. However, early diagnosis of the disease is uncommon, with around 80% of patients being diagnosed at later stages.

Early pancreatic cancers do not often present symptoms; the occurrence of symptoms usually means the disease has spread. What is more, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer – which include belly or back pain, weight loss and digestive problems – can be misdiagnosed as chronic pancreatitis, which presents similar symptoms.

As such, there is a need for tests that can detect the disease early and distinguish it from chronic pancreatitis, and Dr. Crnogorac-Jurcevic and colleagues believe their study may open the door to just that.

The researchers analyzed 192 urine samples from patients with pancreatic cancer, alongside 92 samples from patients with chronic pancreatitis and 87 samples from healthy individuals.

For further validation, the team also assessed 117 additional samples from patients with other benign and malignant liver and gall bladder conditions.

The team identified around 1,500 proteins in the urine samples. Three of these – LYVE1, REG1A and TFF1 – were found at significantly higher levels in the urine samples of patients with pancreatic cancer, compared with the samples from healthy individuals.

Patients with chronic pancreatitis, however, had much lower levels of all three proteins in their urine than patients with pancreatic cancer.

Combining all three proteins to form a “robust panel,” the team found they were able to diagnose stage 1 and 2 pancreatic cancer from patients’ urine with more than 90% accuracy.

These findings, the researchers say, bring us closer toward a low-cost, noninvasive test for the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Dr. Crnogorac-Jurcevic adds:

We’ve always been keen to develop a diagnostic test in urine as it has several advantages over using blood. It’s an inert and far less complex fluid than blood and can be repeatedly and noninvasively tested.

[…] This is a biomarker panel with good specificity and sensitivity and we’re hopeful that a simple, inexpensive test can be developed and be in clinical use within the next few years.”

The researchers would like to confirm their findings by conducting further testing on urine samples from individuals at high risk for pancreatic cancer, particularly those collected from volunteers over a 5-10 year period.

Dr. Crnogorac-Jurcevic explains that by analyzing samples from patients who went on to develop pancreatic cancer, they could determine whether increased levels of the three proteins identified are present during the latency period of the disease – the time frame between the occurrence of genetic changes that cause cancer and the development of symptoms.

Last month, researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston revealed the discovery of a blood biomarker for pancreatic cancer, bringing us closer to a blood test for early diagnosis of the condition.