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According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, microRNA (miRNA) expression patterns can help to distinguish between pancreatic cancer and pancreatitis, ultimately improving the accuracy of diagnosing pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is an organ surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, bile ducts (tubes that connect the liver to the small intestine), gallbladder, liver, and spleen. The pancreas helps the body break down food and also produces hormones, such as insulin, which regulate the body’s storage and use of food.

Pancreatic cancer has one of the highest mortality rates of all cancers. Pancreatic cancer is often called a “silent killer” because its symptoms are usually not recognizable until it has advanced and spread outside the pancreas. As a result, the majority of pancreatic cancers are not diagnosed until they have reached advanced stages and are considered incurable.

The ability to accurately diagnose pancreatic cancer is crucial; accurate diagnosis allows pancreatic cancer to be treated as early as possible, which is necessary for optimal outcomes. However, physicians sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and pancreatic cancer. Methods that can more accurately identify these two conditions have been evaluated recently.

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Researchers from Ohio State University and Italy recently conducted a clinical study to evaluate the effectiveness and accuracy of the expression pattern of miRNA in distinguishing between pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis. miRNAs are molecules that help regulate gene expression. This study included 107 specimens from patients with either pancreatic cancer or chronic pancreatitis who underwent surgery between 2000 and 2005. The specimens underwent testing of miRNA expression patterns; these patterns were compared with the samples of pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, and normal pancreatic tissue.

  • Expression of 23 miRNAs was able to differentiate between pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer with 93% accuracy.
  • Among patients with pancreatic cancer that had spread to lymph nodes, a subgroup of miRNAs was able to distinguish between long-term survivors and those who died within 24 months.

The researchers concluded, “Pancreatic cancer may have a distinct miRNA expression pattern that may differentiate it from normal pancreas and chronic pancreatitis. miRNA expression patterns may be able to distinguish between long- and short-term survivors, but these findings need to be validated in other study populations.”

Reference: Bloomston M, Frankel W, Petrocca F, et al. MicroRNA expression patterns to differentiate pancreatic adenocarcinoma from normal pancreas and chronic pancreatitis. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;97:1901-1908.