Microfluidic technology reveals potential biomarker for early pancreatic cancer

April 30, 2014

Cancer cells are on the move in the bloodstream in the very early stage of pancreatic cancer and can be detected before cancer is diagnosed, according to research by the University of Michigan Health System. In a study of 51 patients, researchers used a microfluidic device to capture circulating pancreas epithelial cells in 33% of patients with early pancreatic lesions and no clinical diagnosis of cancer. The findings, published in Gastroenterology, suggest that circulating pancreas cells (CPCs) seed the bloodstream before tumors can be detected using current clinical tests such as CT and MRI scans. The data suggest that the detection of pancreas cells in the blood may be an early sign of cancer.

“While there is much work that still needs to be done, there is great potential for using this technology to identify who is most at risk for developing pancreatic cancer,” says lead author Andrew Rhim, MD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the U-M Health System and gastroenterologist at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center's Multidisciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Clinic.

One reason the outlook for pancreatic cancer is poor is that very few pancreatic cancers are found early. Moreover, there are no blood tests to find early cancers of the pancreas. It is thought that cancer cells seed the bloodstream late in cancer progression, when large tumors are present. Based on studies in animal models of pancreatic cancer, however, the researchers theorized that dissemination happens before tumors can be detected.

They studied three groups of patients: those who were cancer-free, those diagnosed with precancerous cystic lesions, and those with pancreatic cancer. Researchers captured circulating epithelial cells in 73% of patients with cancer. None of the 19 cancer-free patients without lesions had these cells in their bloodstream. Read the study.

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