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Genetic tests help spot pancreatic cancer sooner

Southampton researchers have identified genetic patterns that predict peoples’ likelihood of pancreatic cancer. This could ensure the early diagnosis and treatment that is vital for survival.

Dr Zaed Hamady and Dr William Tapper of the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and University of Southampton, have developed a computer model for pancreatic cancer risk. Combining common genetic variant, symptoms and lifestyle data has the potential to catch tumours earlier when treatment is most effective.

Improving diagnosis and survival

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) has the lowest survival rates of any cancer. With no effective early diagnoses, it is usually detected when advanced and spreading around the body.

Newly appeared diabetes is strongly linked to this cancer. Early traits can also include weight loss and changes to bowel habits. These inconsistent symptoms can make it challenging for people to swiftly detect the cancer.

Advances in genetic testing and screening programmes have reduced deaths from breast cancer, however these techniques have not yet been well developed to identify people at high-risk of PDAC.

Using genetic data to predict risk

This study used data from the UK Biobank, a database of genetic and health information from half a million UK participants.

The researchers analysed the genetic data of 1,042 people with PDAC and compared this against 10,420 healthy participants without cancer.

They looked for small variations in genes previously linked to the disease. The team used these to test various computer models, giving people a pancreatic cancer risk score.

The results have been published in the journal Gastroenterology

Catching cancer earlier

The best model they developed combined genetic data with information on a person’s symptoms, lifestyle and medical history.

It worked most effectively when applied to people with diabetes, but was also found to be predictive to a lesser extent in people without diabetes.

Dr Hamady, consultant hepato-pancreato-biliary surgeon at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“This study could change the way we diagnose people with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. It shows it is possible to develop a model which can predict who is most likely to develop the disease.

“If used as a tool to aid diagnosis, this could greatly help to catch this cancer early, at a time when treatment is most effective. This would help save lives.”


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