Research

Cancer blood test could help early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer

The NHS is set to trial a new blood test designed to detect over 50 types of cancer from next year. A potentially positive development in the future of diagnosing patients with pancreatic cancer.

Cancer blood test

The test works by detecting small amounts of abnormal DNA produced by tumours that circulates in the blood. The large pilot of the test will involve 140,000 people aged between 50 and 79 who will be offered the blood test annually for three years to attempt to identify cancers before they show symptoms. A further 25,000 people will be offered the test once they are symptomatic, as part of their cancer tests.  

At Pancreatic Cancer Action, we welcome the research as a potential aid to early diagnosis. Currently, around 80% of pancreatic tumours are diagnosed at stage three or four, too late for potentially curative surgery. 5-year survival is under 8% and has not significantly increased in decades.  

These statistics need to change. We know that early diagnosis increases treatment options and saves lives, therefore we look forward to seeing the results of the pilot and the impact on pancreatic cancer diagnosis.  

Currently, there is a no simple screening test for pancreatic cancer and some patients need multiple investigations before they are diagnosed. Furthermore, the vague symptoms of the disease and a lack of public awareness can cause patients to present late.  

The option of a simple blood test to screen patients for pancreatic cancer before they show symptoms would be a potential game changer. However, we remain cautious about some elements of this trial. Previous research work has been conducted in smaller groups of patients showing symptoms. Those studies have shown varying results in detecting cancers early. Larger and later stage tumours produce more of the abnormal DNA that the blood test is designed to identify. The test must be sensitive enough to identify abnormal DNA from pancreatic tumours accurately, without missing cases or giving a false positive result.  

At Pancreatic Cancer Action, we will be monitoring the progress of this promising research closely and evaluating the results. We welcome the investment into early diagnosis of cancers with a poor survival rate like pancreatic and are pleased to see this as a focus of the NHS despite the Covid-19 pandemic.