Researchers have identified a handful of proteins in incredibly tiny amounts that may one day help doctors distinguish between a harmless lesion in the pancreas and a potentially deadly one.
According to the researchers at Fox Chase Cancer Center, these protein biomarkers, if confirmed in subsequent studies, could represent reliable indicators of pancreatic cancer or precancerous pancreatic lesions, which would allow for earlier, perhaps more successful treatment.
"New technologies have become very good at identifying pancreatic cysts when they appear, but we know very little about how to categorize these cysts. We can detect, in as little as 40 microliters of cyst fluids a group of proteins that might collectively be used as indicators of a potentially cancerous cyst," said the study's senior author Anthony Yeung, Ph.D., molecular biologist and member of Fox Chase's faculty.
Using an endoscopic ultrasound-guided technique, the researchers collected fluid from the cysts of 20 research participants with a small needle.
Yeung and his laboratory team then assayed the fluid to determine the number and type of proteins it contained. Identifying the proteins took more than eight months of continuous time with a mass spectrometer, an instrument that can determine the makeup of, and thereby identify, individual molecules.
Among the proteins they found were members of three families of proteins previously proposed to be biomarkers for pancreatic cancer, called mucins, CEACAMs, and S100s.
"From these samples we've identified a panel of these proteins that could all be considered harbingers of cancer in some way. Now that we know what we are looking for, we can use even more powerful spectrometry techniques to find this pattern of proteins fast enough that it could be used as part of a clinical service," Yeung said.
Their findings appear in the March issue of the journal Pancreas.