Advances against pancreatic cancer: a blood test could detect the tumor early

E. C.

A European project with the participation of CNIO is working on a new method that would make it possible to identify biomarkers that alert to the presence of the disease in its early stages of development

E. P.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023, 7:13 p.m.

A consortium made up of 17 research centers from eight countries, including the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), has launched the ‘PANCAID’ project (acronym in English for Initial Detection of Pancreatic Cancer by Liquid Biopsy), which aspires to develop a minimally invasive blood test to alert pancreatic tumors in their early stages of development.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer, is usually diagnosed in advanced stages. It is a tumor that takes time to cause symptoms, for which there are no early detection methods and which usually causes death within a year of diagnosis.

In 2020, some 8,200 cases were diagnosed in Spain (about 150,000 in the entire European Union) and the incidence is increasing. The researchers agree that one of the most urgent challenges in this tumor is learning how to diagnose it on time.

detectable biomarkers in blood

This new project, which has just started, will receive a total funding of 9.8 million euros from the European Commission (EC) until 2027. Researchers will look for detectable biomarkers in the blood that alert to the presence of the tumor, such as products derived from tumor cells, even in trace amounts.

To do this, blood samples will be collected and analyzed from patients with pancreatic cancer, its precursor lesions and people at risk (for example, patients with a genetic predisposition). Once possible biomarkers have been identified, artificial intelligence (AI) techniques will be used to determine the best ones, and their combinations. When the best set of markers is identified, a multicenter clinical trial will be launched to investigate the efficacy of the new blood test.

“It is one of the most ambitious investigations carried out to date to improve the early detection of pancreatic cancer,” said Héctor Peinado, a CNIO researcher, who will analyze patient plasma to identify biomarkers secreted in extracellular vesicles (cell components tumors that travel through the bloodstream).

The scientist has highlighted that the early detection of pancreatic cancer is “a challenge”, since “the vast majority of cases are diagnosed when it is no longer curable”. “Detecting it early opens the door to early treatment. There are no screening techniques or markers in liquid biopsy that currently make it possible to do so. Our objective is to advance in this field, and develop a test applicable to routine practice », he added in this regard.

artificial intelligence against cancer

The project lasts so long and involves so many researchers because “biomarkers in liquid biopsy are very difficult to identify, and also detecting them with the sensitivity necessary for an early diagnosis is a challenge”, detailed Nuria Malats, a CNIO researcher and coordinator of one of the ‘PANCAID’ groups.

Malats will coordinate data management and artificial intelligence analysis. “The goal is to identify liquid biopsy markers that predict early-stage pancreatic cancer, and integrate them all into a single signature for use in pancreatic cancer screening programs,” she explained.

The researcher has advanced that the project will use innovative machine learning strategies and neural networks, in collaboration with expert groups from other European countries and Israel.

A minimally invasive blood test with high sensitivity and specificity could make it possible to diagnose the disease and start treatment earlier, which would reduce mortality and improve the quality of life of patients.

‘PANCAID’ is part of the Horizon Europe project and the European Plan for the Fight against Cancer. It has 17 members from eight countries (Germany, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Belgium, France, Israel and the United Kingdom). The project kick-off meeting took place from February 13 to 15 in Hamburg (Germany).