Published in Health Care

Van Andel Research Institute develops new blood test for pancreatic cancer

BY Friday, January 18, 2019 09:02am

GRAND RAPIDS — Researchers led by scientists at Van Andel Research Institute developed a new blood test that can lead to the earlier detection and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

When combined with an existing screening, the test detects nearly 70 percent of pancreatic cancers and has a false positive rate of less than 5 percent, leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment for patients. That’s a significant improvement over an existing test developed nearly 40 years ago that detects 40 percent of pancreatic cancers, a type of cancer that lacks obvious early symptoms and has a five-year survival rate of just 8.5 percent.


The new test works by identifying a biomarker in the blood that indicates the presence of pancreatic cancer.

Brian Haab, a professor at the Grand Rapids-based Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), called the tests’ development “really significant.”

“This is absolutely a real discovery,” said Haab, the senior author of a blind study published his month by Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

“Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease made even more devastating by its tendency to spread before detection, which is a serious roadblock to successful medical treatment,” he said. “We hope that our new test, when used in conjunction with the currently available test, will help doctors catch and treat pancreatic cancer in high-risk individuals before the disease has spread.”

The next step for the test is for the research partnership that includes that VARI to conduct clinical trials over the next year or two. The bulk of the clinical trials involving about 200 people will occur at hospitals and clinics in the Grand Rapids area, Haab said.

If the trials are successful, the partnership will seek to establish the test in a diagnostic lab for use to screen patients that have a high risk for developing pancreatic cancer, such as people with a family history of the disease or the sudden onset of type-2 diabetes.

“If that looks good, it could begin to be offered on a limited basis to our partners,” Haab said. “The scope of it just depends on performance, really, and whether we validate it.”

Researchers that worked on the study are from VARI, Michigan State University, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Medical University of South Carolina, and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

As the test heads for clinical trials, discussions are “ongoing” with clinical labs that would run the test on a trial basis, as well as with larger diagnostics companies that could produce test kits, Haab said.

“We have had interest in that area. Nothing nailed down, but we’re seeing how that goes,” he said. “If we meet the performance similar to what we’ve already shown, we can begin using this on a limited basis with our clinical partners and take it from there.”

Researchers ultimately would license the test, if proven effective, to a clinical lab partner, he said.

The American Cancer Society estimates that some 56,770 men and women in the U.S. are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer annually. About 45,750 people in the U.S. die each year from the disease.

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