Protein-Coating Sugars Could Be Biomarker for Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatitis is the term used to describe clinical inflammation of the pancreas. It accounts for approximately 275,000 hospitalizations in the United States every year. Those who suffer pancreatitis typically have a genetic disposition to do so, with a nearly 50 percent lifetime risk or developing pancreatic cancer. 

Cancers of the pancreas are on the rise, however, so it is imperative to start learning more about this conditions and what can be done to prevent it.  As a matter of fact, approximately 60,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in the United States, every year.  Unfortunately we still do not know the underlying cause for the progression of the disease, but—as with many cancers—lifestyle choice and family history of cancers, smoking, diabetes, and chronic localized inflammation could be at play. 

What is fortunate, however, is that new studies indicate that a chemical structure created by complex sugar molecules could establish a powerful biomarker that, when elevated in blood levels could indicate pancreatitis or, at a later stage, pancreatic cancer. 

According to former Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Cancer Center postdoctoral fellow, Dannielle Engle, this sugar molecule is known as CA19-9.  As an Assistant Professor at Salk Institute, Engle studies how pancreatitis progresses into pancreatic cancer; and her team is now the first to provide evidence that CA19-9 not only causes the disease but definitely has a correlation as a biomarker. 

Engle says that this is one of the unique scientific opportunities in which prophylactic intervention of pancreatitis has the potential to prevent further development of pancreatic cancer in patients most at risk. 

She further explains, “Pancreatitis is required for developing pancreatic cancer, and we might be able to prevent that transition in patients with pancreatitis by targeting CA19-9.  By targeting CA19-9 with antibodies in animal models, we were able to reduce the severity of pancreatitis and even prevent it from occurring.”

Like most types of cancer, pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat.  One reason, of course, is that it is first of all hard to determine; by the time it is diagnosed, the cancer has usually progressed to very late stage.  The discovery of this biomarker, then, could lead to far more effective and early-stage diagnose tools that will eventually lead to more effective prevention strategies and treatments. 

The results of this study have been published in the journal Science.