Scientists have found a way to detect pancreatic cancer even in its early stages, through a procedure as simple as a blood test.

This discovery can further lead to a reduction in the death rate of pancreatic cancer patients.

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center did an experiment on blood samples and published their findings in the journal Nature.

The researchers are developing a blood test focused on locating GPC1, a protein only found in cancer cells. The blood test detects vesicles or tissue droplets in the bloodstream after breaking off from the pancreatic tumor cells' surface. The test should be able to further detect GPC1.

The blood test was run down on about 250 patients, and produced accurate results in detecting the deadly disease, and, as Cancer Biology chair Raghu Kalluri MD, PhD puts it, "with absolute specificity and sensitivity."

Kalluri adds that more importantly, the test can identify patients with chronic pancreatitis and those with early and late-stage pancreatic cancer.

Prior to this study, the only known way to diagnose a patient with pancreatic cancer is through a series of routine hospital checks like MRI or CT scans. Not only are these costly, they are time consuming as well. Patients would have only been diagnosed late.

In Britain, pancreatic cancer places tenth among the most common cancers, and has one of the highest mortality rates. Scientists say it is most often too late for effective surgery - only around 15 percent qualify for the procedure. According to Kalluri, if the disease is detected in its earlier stages, death rates could go down.

"Our study suggests the potential for [GPC1 protein] as a detection and monitoring tool for pancreatic cancer in combination with imaging, with an emphasis on its application in early detection," says the study's author Dr. David Piwnica-Worms.

In the study, blood samples frozen for 30 years also detected pancreatic cancer vesicles. This could be useful stored hospital tissues, for purposes of research.

In Kalluri's opinion: "This presents an unprecedented opportunity for informative early detection of pancreatic cancer and in designing potential curative surgical options."

The study was funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and partially by the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute.

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