The challenge with pancreatic cancer has always been to catch it early. Because of its subtle, variable symptoms, the disease often isn’t diagnosed until an advanced stage, when it is particularly difficult to treat.
Researchers are investigating not only how to detect the disease earlier but also how to better understand its causes and develop more effective treatments.
Pancreatic cancer arises in a series of steps that occur over a number of years. At the earliest stages, pancreas cells begin to acquire mutations or other abnormalities in a small number of genes. As abnormalities arise in additional genes, the cells of the pancreas begin to look abnormal. One of the most common genes to be affected is KRAS, which regulates cell growth. Researchers are developing new diagnostic tests that can detect this change using fluid extracted from the pancreas, although such tests aren’t yet ready for general use.
In recent research, scientists at Dana-Farber and other institutions recently found that an upsurge in certain amino acids often occurs before pancreatic cancer is diagnosed and symptoms appear. Although the increase isn’t large enough to be the basis of an early-detection test, the discovery will help researchers better understand how pancreatic cancer affects the rest of the body, particularly how it can trigger the sometimes deadly muscle-wasting disease known as cachexia.
Efforts to improve the treatment of pancreatic cancer include the development of new surgical and radiation therapy techniques, new combinations of chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapies, and therapies that harness the immune system to attack the disease.
In the surgical field, investigators are exploring whether laparoscopic procedures – which involve inserting surgical instruments through small cuts in the abdomen – to remove cancerous pancreatic tissue are as effective as traditional, large-incision techniques and whether they improve the recovery process. Some studies are also examining whether delivering a large dose of radiation therapy to the pancreas during surgery is beneficial.
*credit verbatim via Dana-Farber Cancer Institute*