New funding for a dire need: Pancreas cancer early detection

With a $250,000 award from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, researchers will seek to validate biomarkers able to detect pancreas cancer months or years before patients experience overt symptoms of the disease.

Brett Sheppard, M.D.

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma is the deadliest of the major cancer types, with a five-year survival rate of less than 10 percent. Unlike the other major causes of cancer mortality, pancreatic cancer is increasing in both incidence and number of deaths each year.

Principal investigator Brett Sheppard, M.D., is a professor of surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine. Co-principal investigator Rosalie Sears, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics. The two are co-directors of the Brenden-Colson Center for Pancreatic Care as well as members of the Knight Cancer Institute.

Rosalie Sears, Ph.D.

Surgical resection of pancreas tumors can prolong survival, but fewer than one-fifth of patients are diagnosed early enough for surgery to be feasible.

Improving survival will depend on advances in early detection so that more patients are eligible for surgery, and on the development of better chemotherapeutic agents to control cancer after surgery.

The OHSU researchers are using a serum-screening technology developed by Immunovia AB, a Swedish biotech firm that began a collaboration with the Knight Cancer Institute and the Brenden-Colson Center in 2015. Immunovia’s platform uses a microarray with recombinant antibodies as probes to detect a specific set of proteins in blood, many of them involved in immune regulation. The platform, called IMMray, produces a snapshot of immune activity in a patient at the time of the blood draw that reflects both the systemic response to cancer and tumor-secreted factors. The IMMray test will be run at the OHSU Knight Diagnostic Laboratories, currently the only lab authorized in the U.S. to do this work.

Sheppard and Sears will test the antibody array using serum samples taken from men and women newly diagnosed with diabetes who later developed pancreas cancer. One in 125 individuals with sudden, adult onset diabetes are diabetic as a consequence of undiagnosed pancreatic cancer, making this the only feasible screenable population of individuals with sporadic PDAC, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The nonprofit organization is supporting studies that identify promising blood biomarkers or imaging approaches that can utilize a cohort from the Chronic Pancreatitis, Diabetes, and Pancreatic Cancer Consortium formed in late 2015 by the National Institutes of Health. The consortium plans to assemble a cohort of 10,000 subjects over age 50 with new-onset diabetes, called the NoD cohort. The purpose of the NoD cohort includes establishing a biobank of clinically annotated biospecimens, including a reference set of biospecimens from pre-symptomatic pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma and control new-onset type 2 diabetes mellitus subjects.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network aims to double pancreatic cancer survival by the year 2020. Sheppard and Sears hope to contribute to that goal by developing biomarkers to detect the cancer when it is at an early stage amenable to surgical resection and cure.

The organization has posted a full roster of this year’s grant recipients online, including a page describing the Sheppard and Sears project.