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According to the results of a study published in Clinical Cancer Research, evaluation of how light scatters off of tissue adjacent to the pancreas may help to identify pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage.

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.

In an attempt to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, researchers assessed whether optical markers that were originally evaluated for the detection of colon cancer could also detect pancreatic cancer. The optical technology evaluates how light scatters off of tissue. The pattern of the scatter provides information about the structure of cells. Cancer cells may produce a different pattern than normal cells.

The study evaluated samples of tissue removed the duodenum. The duodenum is the first part of the small intestine. Biopsy of the duodenum is less risky than biopsy of the pancreas. Furthermore, since the duodenum is adjacent to the pancreas, the researchers hypothesized that cells in the duodenum of patients with pancreatic cancer would show a different pattern of light scatter than cells in the duodenum of patients without pancreatic cancer.

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In this study of 51 patients-19 with pancreatic cancer and 32 without pancreatic cancer-the researchers found that optical markers accurately distinguished the two groups of patients. The optical markers correctly classified 95% of the patients with pancreatic cancer and 91% of the patients without pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, the optical markers were able to identify both early-stage and advanced-stage pancreatic cancer.

The researchers conclude that use of optical markers may provide an accurate and minimally invasive approach to detecting pancreatic cancer. Larger studies are necessary to further evaluate this approach.

Reference: Liu Y, Brand RE, Turzhitsky V et al. Optical markers in duodenal mucosa predict the presence of pancreatic cancer. Clinical Cancer Research. 2007;13:4392-4399.

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