Dana-Farber Researchers Identify an Early Sign of Pancreatic Cancer

The discovery could lead to a new test for the disease.

Detecting pancreatic cancer earlier may improve the ability to treat the disease, according to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. That’s why scientists at Dana-Farber, MIT, and other institutions were searching for a sign of the early development of pancreatic cancer—and they found it.

Scientists found that there’s an “upsurge in certain amino acids” that can occur before diagnosis and symptoms. The research was published online in the journal Nature Medicine.

Dana-Farber reps are quick to point out that the increase “isn’t large enough to be the basis of a new test for early detection of the disease, the findings will help researchers better understand how pancreatic cancer affects the rest of the body, particularly how it can trigger the sometimes deadly muscle-wasting disease known as cachexia.”

But, the findings led the researchers to hypothesize that the increase in amino acids is due to the presence of an early pancreatic tumor, says Brian Wolpin, MD, of Dana-Farber, and co-senior author of the new study.

According to a report from Dana-Farber:

The researchers utilized blood samples collected years earlier from 1,500 people participating in large health-tracking studies. They analyzed the samples for more than 100 different metabolites – substances produced by the metabolic process – and compared the results from participants who had gone on to develop pancreatic cancer and those who had not.

“We found that higher levels of branched chain amino acids were present in people who went on to develop pancreatic cancer compared to those who did not develop the disease,” Wolpin said. The amount of time that would elapse before those individuals were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ranged from two to 25 years, although the highest risk was in the several years before diagnosis, the researchers found.

Wolpin says that people with the most common form of pancreatic cancer are usually diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage. “[M]any die within a year of diagnosis. Detecting the disease earlier in its development may improve our ability to treat it successfully. In this study, we asked whether PDAC produces metabolic changes—changes in the way the body uses energy and nutrients—that can be detected before the disease is diagnosed,” he says.

The theory was tested in lab experiments at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, and showed that the mice with new pancreatic tumors had “above-normal blood levels of these amino acids.”

The findings provide an important lead to scientists studying how pancreatic tumors interact with patients’ normal tissues, the authors say.