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New research suggests a blood test might be able to detect pancreatic cancer earlier. The test is a liquid biopsy, which analyzes your blood instead of needing a tissue sample. This type of cancer is often tough to catch because symptoms are vague, and the pancreas is tucked deep inside the body.

head shot of Dr. Dae Won Kim

Dae Won Kim, M.D.

“Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers, and it is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States,” said Dae Won Kim, M.D., a medical oncologist in the Department of Gastrointestinal Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center. “A majority of patients have advanced and metastatic pancreatic cancer at initial diagnosis since there are no effective screening tests for early detection of pancreatic cancer.”

The new liquid biopsy approach is focused on leveraging tiny particles called exosomes, which carry molecular information between cells. Researchers identified specific microRNAs unique to exosomes shed from pancreatic cancer cells. Combined with cell-free DNA markers, these microRNAs formed a distinct signature for pancreatic cancer detection.

Initial testing results presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting demonstrated a 98% detection rate for pancreatic cancer in a cohort of 95 individuals. The researchers enrolled participants from multiple institutions and countries, including Japan, the United States, South Korea and China, to validate their findings further.

Across these diverse cohorts, the exosome-based liquid biopsy consistently performed well, accurately detecting pancreatic cancer. And when integrated with the established pancreatic cancer marker CA19-9, the liquid biopsy achieved a 97% detection rate for stages 1 and 2 pancreatic cancers in the U.S. cohort.

“This assay may be helpful for early detection of pancreatic cancer in people with high risks such as a strong family history of pancreatic cancer, germline BRCA mutations, intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm (pancreas precancer lesion) or chronic pancreatitis,” Kim said. “However, further studies are needed with large populations before using the assay in clinical practice.”