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Are there screening tests for pancreatic cancer?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Screening tests are most effective—and practical—if they're looking for fairly common conditions. Pancreatic cancer is a deadly disease, but compared with other cancers that we screen for, it's relatively rare.

So, at least for the time being, rather than seeking a universal screening test, researchers have been focusing their efforts on finding one that would work in high-risk populations, which includes people who have chronic pancreatitis, a family history of that condition or pancreatic cancer, or mutations in the BRCA2 gene. BRCA2 mutations were first associated with breast and ovarian cancer, but it's become apparent that they're also associated with pancreatic cancer.

A group of investigators called the Cancer of the Pancreas Screening Consortium has conducted several small studies of screening tests. One possibility is direct examination of the pancreas with an endoscopic ultrasound, which involves snaking a thin, flexible tube—the endoscope—through the patient's mouth and down the digestive tract. A tiny ultrasound transducer on the tip uses sound waves to create images of the pancreas and nearby structures. Researchers have also tested endoscopic ultrasound in combination with CT scans and, more recently, with a CT scan and a fancy MRI that produces images of blood vessels in the abdomen. Up to now, none of these approaches has produced especially promising results.

Other research groups are looking for pancreatic cancer genes that could be identified in a blood sample. The National Cancer Institute is backing an effort to find subtle genetic "fingerprints" (single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) that might be predictive for pancreatic cancer.

But the bottom line is that we don't have a screening test—yet. There's lots of promising research going on. I am hopeful that we'll have a reliable one, probably for a high-risk group, before too much longer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.