Centre for Inflammation Research

Cancer Research UK funds search for pancreatic cancer test

CIR scientists are to receive £97,289 from Cancer Research UK to search for a blood test to detect pancreatic cancer.

3D scientific illustration of digestive system with the pancreas highlighted.
magicmine via Getty Images

Each year around 860 people are diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer in Scotland. With around 810 Scots sadly losing their lives to the disease annually, finding new ways to tackle it is vital. Around 10,800 people are diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer every year in the United Kingdom. With around 9,700 people in the United Kingdom sadly losing their lives to the disease annually.

Currently, the majority of people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at an advanced stage when cancer is difficult to treat. As a result, pancreatic cancer is a leading cause of cancer death across the UK. 

In addition, the location and function of the pancreas make it a difficult cancer to treat with surgery being often the only possible treatment. 

Dr Marta Canel, of the Centre for Inflammation Research, will lead the new research project and is hoping her team can find a way to detect pancreatic cancer earlier when it can be more effectively treated.

Dr Canel's team will focus on particular genes, called KRAS, SMAD4 and CDKN2A which, when altered, cause cancer cells to divide and grow out of control. They aim to understand how the variations on these genes affect biomarkers - biological evidence in the blood that indicate cancer is present. 

A blood test would reduce the need for invasive diagnostic biopsies which are particularly difficult given the location and vital function of the pancreas in creating insulin to regulate sugar in the bloodstream and aid digestion. Such a test would also allow screening for the most at risk group including older people and people who develop type 2 diabetes later in life.  

The majority of patients with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at an advanced disease stage, by which time, treatment options are limited and prognosis is extremely poor. 

“Relatively low incidence means many GPs will only see a new patient with pancreatic cancer every five years and with symptoms overlapping with more common health conditions, initial diagnosis can be difficult.

“Diagnosing pancreatic cancer at an early stage when surgery remains possible and treatment more effective, is critical to patients.

Dr Marta CanelResearch Fellow, Centre for Inflammation Research, University of Edinburgh

Developing a blood test for diagnosis has been a key focus for pancreatic cancer research, however no biomarker has so far been identified which provides for a robust reliable blood test. Previous research by the team identified markers in the blood which can be detected when tumours are driven by specific genetic changes. 

With the majority of pancreatic cancer patients having tumours driven by a KRAS mutation, in addition to a number of genetic variations which can shape pancreatic cancer tumours, fully mapping these could pave the way for tailored testing (known as Precision medicine) for individual patients.

Precision medicine is a growing area of cancer research, we hope this research will provide valuable new insights into pancreatic cancer and provide hope for patients to access earlier and more effective treatment in future.

Dr Catherine ElliottDirector of Research at Cancer Research UK

The Edinburgh team also hopes their research may pinpoint vulnerabilities in pancreatic cancer which could be targeted by existing or new treatments such as immunotherapy which is not currently available for pancreatic cancer. 

Currently, surgery is often the sole effective treatment for pancreatic cancer and only if the disease is caught in time.

About Cancer Research UK  

  • Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research, influence and information.  

  • Cancer Research UK’s pioneering work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives.   

  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival in the UK double in the last 50 years.   

  • Today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer for at least 10 years. Cancer Research UK wants to accelerate progress and see 3 in 4 people surviving their cancer by 2034.  

  • Cancer Research UK supports research into the prevention and treatment of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.  

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK is working towards a world where people can live longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer.  

Find out more

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity:

Visit Cancer Research UK website