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Surprise Finding: Pancreatic Cancers Progress Slowly


Photo by Cancer Type

Pancreatic cancer develops and spreads much more slowly than scientists have thought, according to new research from Johns Hopkins investigators. The finding indicates that there is a potentially broad window for diagnosis and prevention of the disease.

“For the first time, we have a quantifiable estimate of the development of pancreatic cancer, and when it would be best to intervene,” according to Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, MD, PhD, associate professor of Pathology and Oncology at Johns Hopkins’ Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, “so there is potentially a very broad window for screening.” Right now, however, she adds, “pretty much everybody is diagnosed after that window has closed.”

The researchers say the goal is to develop a pancreatic cancer screening method similar to the protocol used for breast and colon cancers.

The study, published in the journal Nature, suggests that it takes at least a decade for the first cancer-causing mutation that occurs in a cell in a pancreatic lesion to turn into a full-fledged cancer cell. At this point, the lesion is called “high-grade,” and it should be removed, much like polyps are removed from the colon.

After the first cancer cell appears, it takes an average of nearly seven years for that cell to turn into the billions that make up a cancerous tumor the size of a plum, after which at least one of the cells within the tumor has the potential and ability to spread to other organs. The results contradict the idea that pancreatic cancers metastasize very early in their development, says Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue.

Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages because there are frequently few symptoms and current imaging techniques are not specific for this type of cancer. The researchers say the goal is to develop a pancreatic cancer screening method similar to the protocol used for breast and colon cancers.

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For more information, visit www.PanCan.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.