Scientist may have found the first screening test for detecting lymph node metastasis in pancreatic cancer patients

Zen Vuong
DUARTE, Calif. — For years, surgeons have operated on pancreatic cancer patients to remove what they thought was a localized tumor only to discover that the disease had spread to other, inoperable parts of the body. Now, a City of Hope molecular scientist thinks he may have found a way to prevent ineffective surgeries and prolong the lives of these patients.
Unlike breast, skin or prostate cancer, there is no standard-of-care screening test for pancreatic cancer. And because the pancreas is situated deep within the abdominal cavity, today’s imaging technology often doesn’t see the pancreatic tumors and are not sensitive enough to detect the minority of cancer cells that have already spread to lymph nodes.
“If we know beforehand that these pancreatic cancer patients have lymph node metastases, we probably would not perform surgery because it’s complicated, expensive and, most importantly, patients with lymph node spread don’t do well after surgery,” said Ajay Goel, Ph.D., M.S., A.G.A.F., chair of the Department of Molecular Diagnostics and Experimental Therapeutics at City of Hope and lead author of the new study.
“Instead, we would likely first treat the patient with chemotherapy to kill all the loose-hanging cells in the lymph nodes and then surgically remove the cancer from the pancreas.”
On average the five-year survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer is only 10%, according to the National Cancer Institute. While pancreatic cancer is expected to account for about 3% of all cancer cases in 2020, it likely will be responsible for nearly 8% of cancer deaths this year.
The researchers say City of Hope is the first to perform a comprehensive, genome-wide analysis to identify a novel microRNA biomarker that can be used to detect lymph node metastases in patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, which makes up about 80% of all pancreatic cancer cases.
Published in the journal Gastroenterology this month, the study identified microRNA, a type of gene, that is highly expressed in people with metastatic pancreatic cancer. With more investigation, doctors could one day use this biomarker to practice precision medicine. In other words, a simple biopsy would help doctors understand each patient’s particular disease and empower them to select the most appropriate treatment and disease management strategies for that patient.
“Lymph node metastasis status remains one of the most important predictors of survival in patients undergoing curative resection and is considered to be of tremendous clinical significance for risk stratification and therapeutic decision-making,” according to the study.
To find the novel biomarker, the scientists analyzed data in three public datasets. Then they tested and validated their hypothesis using 373 samples that included pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma specimens, samples collected from patients before surgery and biopsies taken prior to any chemotherapy treatment. The median follow-up was 5.5 years in the testing or training cohort and 2.8 years for the validation cohort.
It turns out that there are six distinct genes or microRNAs at play: miR-155-5p, miR-196b-5p, miR-365a-5p, miR-629-5p, miR-675-3p and miR-92b-3p. A quality assurance test showed that the scientists’ proposed screening test had an accuracy level of 78%.
“This may not seem like a high percentage but in a clinical setting, especially when we don’t currently have a pancreatic cancer screening tool, this accuracy level has few equals,” Goel said.
Now that Goel and colleagues have created the proof-of-concept biopsy screening test for the presence of lymphatic metastasis in pancreatic cancer, they want to develop the first blood draw test that they hope will identify when pancreatic cancer has spread to lymph nodes. A blood screening test is a less invasive way to deliver personalized therapy. He’s already working on it and says more potential clinical innovations are coming soon.
Researchers from Baylor University Medical Center, Nara Medical University and Kumamoto University also contributed to this study, which was funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (CA72851, CA187956, CA202797, CA214254), Texas Oncology-Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center, Baylor Scott & White Research Institute and the City of Hope-Ludwig Cancer Research-Conrad N. Hilton Foundation partnership award.
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About City of Hope
City of Hope is an independent biomedical research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases. Founded in 1913, City of Hope is a leader in bone marrow transplantation and immunotherapy such as CAR T cell therapy. City of Hope’s translational research and personalized treatment protocols advance care throughout the world. Human synthetic insulin and numerous breakthrough cancer drugs are based on technology developed at the institution. A National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, City of Hope is the highest ranked cancer hospital in the West, according to U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals: Specialty Ranking. Its main campus is located near Los Angeles, with additional locations throughout Southern California. For more information about City of Hope, follow us on FacebookTwitterYouTube or Instagram.