Pancreatic cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death, because it is seldom detected before the disease has spread to other organs. Only 8 percent of people with pancreatic cancer survive five or more years after diagnosis.
Now, researchers hope to change this bleak scenario with an improved blood test that can detect early-stage pancreatic cancer. A multi-institutional team led by Tony Hu, PhD, an associate professor at Arizona State University, recently reported on their results in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
The researchers first identified the presence of a protein in the blood, called ephrin type-A receptor (EphA2), which is overexpressed by pancreatic tumors. Next, they developed a biosensor using gold nanoparticles that selectively binds to EphA2, changing its light emitting properties. This allowed the team to quantify the amount of EphA2 in a blood sample to see if it is overexpressed.
They validated their biosensor in a pilot study involving 48 healthy people, 59 patients with stage I-III pancreatic cancer and 48 patients with chronic pancreas inflammation. The later condition is often confused with pancreatic cancer using existing diagnostic tests like ultrasound.
The biosensor was able to accurately identify the patients with pancreatic cancer — even those with early stage disease — as well as the patients with chronic pancreas inflammation. If these results are validated with a larger clinical trial, the blood test could be used to screen for pancreatic cancer and could be adapted for other diseases.
“We are now working on lung cancer and lymphoma and have very positive results,” Hu said in a recent news story. “In addition to cancer, we are conducting a project on tuberculosis diagnosis. Theoretically this test could be applied to any type of disease.”