WASHINGTON - A combination of three proteins appears to be a good indicator of early stage pancreatic cancer when found in high levels in urine, British researchers said in a study published Monday.
The findings, published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, hold promise for developing an inexpensive, non-invasive test to detect the disease before it can spread, they said.
There is no existing early diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer, which has the lowest five-year survival rate of all cancers, about three percent in Britain.
"It took a while to secure proof of principle funding in 2008 to look at biomarkers in urine, but it's been worth the wait for these results," said lead researcher Tatjana Crnogorac-Jurcevic.
"This is a biomarker panel with good specificity and sensitivity and we're hopeful that a simple, inexpensive test can be developed and be in clinical use within the next few years."
The team at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University in London, found they could identify stage I-II pancreatic cancer with 90 percent accuracy by the presence of high levels of three proteins -- LYVE1, REG1A and TFF1 -- in urine.
The researchers studied urine samples taken from patients known to have pancreatic cancer; another group known to have chronic pancreatitis, which can be hard to distinguish from cancer of the pancreas; and a third group of healthy patients. Samples from patients with other diseases were also used for comparison.
"Patients with pancreatic cancer were found to have increased levels of each of the three proteins when compared to urine samples from healthy patients, while patients suffering from chronic pancreatitis had significantly lower levels than cancer patients," according to the study.
The researchers now hope to do tests on people in high risk groups, and to collect urine samples from volunteers over a five to ten year period to see if the three-biomarker signature is also present during the period in which the cancer is latent but has not yet developed.
"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," said Nick Lemoine, study co-author and director of Barts Cancer Institute.
"With pancreatic cancer, patients are usually diagnosed when the cancer is already at a terminal stage, but if diagnosed at stage two, the survival rate is 20 per cent, and at stage one, the survival rate for patients with very small tumors can increase up to 60 per cent."