Researchers say the discovery of a biomarker for pancreatic cancer could result in a simple noninvasive and low-cost urine test to detect the disease in the earliest stages.

Pancreatic cancer is a particularly deadly form of cancer because it often does not present any symptoms until it has already begun to spread; for 80 percent of patients, diagnosis can only be confirmed in its later, dangerous stages.

Of those, only around 3 percent survive for five years, the lowest survival rate of any common cancer.

A further complication is that when symptoms become apparent—including back or belly pain, digestive issues and weight loss—patients are sometimes misdiagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, which displays similar symptoms.

That makes the possibility of any diagnostic test able to detect and differentiate pancreatic cancer earlier an important goal, researchers at the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary University of London say.

In their search for a possible biomarker, they analyzed nearly 200 urine samples of patients with pancreatic cancer and compared them with around 100 samples from people with chronic pancreatitis and a similar number of samples taken from healthy people.

Three proteins — LYVE1, REG1A and TFF1 — were present at significantly elevated levels in the urine of pancreatic cancer patients, they report in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

The levels of those same three proteins were much lower in in the patients with chronic pancreatitis, they found.

Using those three proteins, the researchers were able to diagnose stage 1 and 2 pancreatic cancer in urine samples with more than 90 percent accuracy.

The findings suggest a noninvasive, low-cost test for the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer may be at hand, says study leader Dr. Tatjana Crnogorac-Jurcevic.

The proteins represent a biomarker panel with "good specificity and sensitivity," she says.

"We've always been keen to develop a diagnostic test in urine as it has several advantages over using blood. It's an inert and far less complex fluid than blood and can be repeatedly and noninvasively tested," she says.

She says she's hopeful that an inexpensive and simple urine test could be in clinical use in a few years.

That could significantly improve the outlook for pancreatic cancer patients, say study co-author Nick Lemoine, director of the Barts Institute.

"For a cancer with no early-stage symptoms, it's a huge challenge to diagnose pancreatic cancer sooner, but if we can, then we can make a big difference to survival rates," he says.

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