‘This research provides hope that an effective, non-invasive way to diagnose pancreatic cancer early is on the horizon’
Stool samples could soon be analysed to help detect pancreatic cancer after scientists identified microorganisms that appear to place individuals at greater risk of developing the illness.
This “microbial profile” consistently identified patients with the disease, irrespective of how far it had progressed, raising hope that a new screening test could be developed to diagnose pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is deadly and can be very difficult to treat, with only around one in four people surviving one year or more after diagnosis.
Dr Helen Rippon, chief executive of Worldwide Cancer Research, which helped fund the study, said: “This new breakthrough builds on the growing evidence that the microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that live side by side with the cells inside our body – is linked to the development of cancer.
“What’s amazing about this discovery is that the microbiome of stool samples from patients could be used to help diagnose pancreatic cancer early.
“Early detection and diagnosis are just as important an approach to starting new cancer cures as developing treatments. This research provides hope that an effective, non-invasive way to diagnose pancreatic cancer early is on the horizon.”
The scientists studied 57 people with pancreatic cancer (25 early stage and 32 advanced), 50 without cancer acting as controls, and 29 patients with chronic pancreatitis, where the pancreas has become permanently damaged by inflammation.
It was accurate at detecting the most common form of pancreatic cancer – pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. Fewer than one in 20 people with this type survive five or more years.
Following the study, which has been published in the journal Gut, experts from the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) concluded it is “feasible” for a screening programme to be developed using stool samples.
A patent has been applied for development of a pancreatic cancer diagnostic kit that detects the microorganisms in stool samples in a rapid way.
Dr Chris MacDonald, head of research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “New, more accurate biomarkers for the detection of pancreatic cancer are urgently needed and it’s vital that we leave no stone unturned.
“We know the microbiome – the collection of fungi, bacteria and viruses that live inside our bodies or on our skin – and its interaction with our immune system is integral to our health.
“But we’re only now scratching the surface in understanding how this symbiotic relationship works in both health and disease, which is why innovative early-stage research like this is so important.
“There’s tremendous potential in this area and, as our knowledge of the microbiome grows, we would want to see further research explore whether a new microbiome biomarker can detect pancreatic cancer in people with vague symptoms, not just in patients with known disease.
“Back pain, indigestion, weight loss, changes to poo are all common symptoms in pancreatic cancer and of much less serious health conditions, and this is a key factor in why 80 per cent of people with pancreatic cancer are currently diagnosed at an advanced stage.
“We desperately need an early detection tool capable of helping GPs diagnose thousands more people at early symptomatic stage in time for life-saving treatment.”