Identified the first biological signal that allows early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer


A team co-led by CSIC researchers has identified a new biomarker – a biological signal – for early diagnosis of the most common pancreatic cancer, which is the third leading cause of cancer death in developed countries

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This work, published in the journal eBioMedicineassociates the presence of protein tyrosine kinase AXL with the detection of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, the most common type of pancreatic tumor.

This discovery represents a great advance because it allows detection through a blood test, the CSIC points out in a press release. Until now, there was no biomarker for the early detection of pancreatic cancer, of which nearly 8,700 cases were registered in Spain in 2021.

The finding has been led by researchers from the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM-Hospital del Mar) and the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (IIBB-CSIC), a CSIC center associated with the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute ( IDIBAPS).

A protein absent in normal cells

The study has analyzed the usefulness of the receptor tyrosine-kinase AXL, a protein present on the surface of cells, to detect the presence of pancreatic cancer. This protein is usually absent in normal cells, but its presence has been shown to be markedly increased in certain types of tumors, such as pancreatic.

"The AXL protein is a specific marker that tells us that there are already malignant cells. The fact that this marker is linked to cells in the tumor stage gives it great importance due to its specificity in diagnosing pancreatic cancer," says Pilar. Navarro, researcher at the IIBB-CSIC and the IMIM-Hospital del Mar.

The scarcity of markers means that only 20% of patients can be operated on time, promoting metastasis and resistance to treatment

To demonstrate the diagnostic utility of this marker using a blood test, the researchers analyzed samples from more than 200 patients with chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic tumors. "In this way, the presence of the soluble AXL protein in blood was demonstrated as a marker in patients who had already developed the tumor, without being present either in healthy individuals or in those suffering from chronic pancreatitis", emphasize Neus Martínez-Bosch, researcher from the IMIM-Hospital del Mar and Helena Cristóbal, from the IIBB (CSIC-IDIBAPS), first signatories of the work.

This conclusion makes it possible to advance in the detection of pancreatic cancer by identifying the tumor even in patients with pancreatitis, a pathology that can make diagnosis difficult. Thus, a new diagnostic marker is obtained, a very valuable tool, since the scarcity of markers means that only 20% of patients can be operated on time, promoting metastasis and resistance to treatment.

Apply diagnostic

This new marker represents a great innovation in the detection of a type of cancer for which there is no early diagnosis biomarker. Currently, "the CA19-9 protein is only used to evaluate the response to treatment, but it cannot be used in diagnosis due to its low specificity. For this reason, having a new tool is of special relevance, especially all bearing in mind that early diagnosis is essential for tumor surgery, the only curative treatment option", highlights Laura Visa, doctor in the Medical Oncology Service of Hospital del Mar.

The future of the study is related to the analysis of patients who may benefit from this new marker, since a small number of pancreatic tumors do not express the AXL protein. However, the combination of the analysis of both proteins, CA19-9 and AXL, determines the presence of cancer cells with a sensitivity of 90%.

"We are very interested in knowing why some cancers do not express AXL, this could give us clues to know how the tumor mechanisms work that we could use as targets for treatments", concludes Pablo García de Frutos, researcher at the IIBB (CSIC-IDIBAPS).



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