Aust project could lead to early detection of deadly cancer

Monday, 20 November, 2023

Aust project could lead to early detection of deadly cancer

One of Australia’s deadliest cancers, pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed late due to a lack of specific symptoms in the early stages of the disease. By the time most patients are diagnosed, the cancer has grown and already begun to affect nearby organs.

A new research project from WEHI (the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) could change this situation, potentially leading to the first early detection blood test for pancreatic cancer. The research has received critical funding from PanKind, The Australian Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.

“There are no early detection biomarkers for pancreatic cancer and this needs to urgently change,” said Project Lead Dr Belinda Lee, a consultant medical oncologist at WEHI.

The project will build on WEHI’s breakthrough discovery of proteins that can identify early pancreatic cancer in patients.

“We have identified 13 proteins that could distinguish between the early and late stages of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) — the most common type of pancreatic cancer that’s fast becoming the cancer of our generation,” Lee said.

“While the 5-year survival rate of most other cancers has improved, the incidence and death rate from PDAC is rising — and it’s projected to become the second leading cause of cancer-related death by 2030.

“Even with a diagnosis, there are no biomarkers that can guide clinical decisions for pancreatic cancer, meaning clinicians have limited opportunities to ensure the right, and best, treatment for their patients,” Lee explained.

3D structures formed by human pancreatic cancer cells. WEHI researchers are working on developing the first diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer, which could help triple the survival rate of pancreatic cancer by 2030. Credit: WEHI.

Lee’s team hopes to validate the 13 proteins and show that they can be used to reliably screen for early pancreatic cancer.

“This would allow us to create the first diagnostic test to identify patients who have early stages of pancreatic cancer — something that unfortunately does not exist at the moment,” Lee said.

To achieve this goal, researchers will leverage the global PURPLE Pancreatic Cancer Translational Registry, established by Lee at WEHI in 2016, which also helped the team identify the 13 critical proteins.

The registry is a large-scale database that tracks the treatment journey of patients at 48 cancer centres across Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, with over 4000 patients and 2000 biospecimens currently available. Data from the registry confirms that 70% of patients present with advanced disease, highlighting the need for biomarkers to enable earlier detection.

“We will utilise state-of-the art technologies and computational methodologies to compare the protein signature in the blood of healthy individuals to pancreatic cancer patients with early- and late-stage disease,” Lee said.

“The results will allow us to identify potential novel blood-based biomarkers that can be further developed to create a simple, non-invasive screening test to identify early-stage pancreatic cancer.

“The ultimate goal is that this tool leads to earlier diagnosis of this silent cancer, thereby increasing the number of patients who go into remission and helping us triple survival rates by 2030.”

The project, ‘Development of a blood-based test to identify patients with early pancreatic cancer’, is supported by PanKind’s $100,000 Marianne Allan Pancreatic Cancer Research Grant.

Image caption: WEHI co-investigators Associate Professor Tracy Putoczki and Dr Belinda Lee. Image credit: WEHI.

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