The CNIO participates in a large European project to detect pancreatic cancer when it is still incipient through a blood test
Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer, is usually diagnosed in advanced stages. It is a tumor that takes time to cause symptoms, for which there are no early detection methods, and which usually causes death within a year of diagnosis. In 2020, some 8,200 cases were diagnosed in Spain (about 150,000 in the entire European Union), and the incidence is increasing. The researchers agree that one of the most urgent challenges in this tumor is learning how to diagnose it on time.
That is the objective of PANCAID, an acronym in English for Initial Detection of Pancreatic Cancer by Liquid Biopsy, a consortium made up of 17 research centers from eight countries, including the CNIO (National Center for Oncological Research), which aspires to develop an analysis minimally invasive blood tests to alert the tumor in its early stages of development.
The project, which has just started, will receive total funding of 9.8 million euros from the European Commission (EC) until 2027. Researchers will look for detectable biomarkers in the blood that alert to the presence of the tumor, such as products derived from tumor cells, even in trace amounts.
Blood samples will be collected and analyzed from patients with pancreatic cancer, its precursor lesions, and people at risk (for example, patients with a genetic predisposition). Once possible biomarkers have been identified artificial intelligence (AI) techniques will be used to determine the best ones and their combinations.
Once the best set of markers has been established, a multicenter clinical trial will begin to investigate the efficacy of the new blood test.
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PANCAID “is one of the most ambitious investigations launched to date to improve early detection of pancreatic cancer,” says Héctor Peinado, a CNIO researcher who will analyze patient plasma to identify biomarkers secreted in extracellular vesicles (components of tumor cells that travel through the bloodstream).
“Right now, early detection of pancreatic cancer is a challenge, the vast majority of cases are diagnosed when it is no longer curable. Detecting it in time opens the door to early treatment”, says Peinado. “There are no screening techniques or markers in the liquid biopsy that currently make it possible to do so. Our objective is to advance in this area and develop a test applicable to routine practice”.
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Artificial intelligence to detect pancreatic cancer
The project lasts so long and involves so many researchers because “biomarkers in liquid biopsies are very difficult to identify, and also detecting them with the sensitivity necessary for early diagnosis is a challenge”, points out Nuria Malats, a CNIO researcher and coordinator of one of the PANCAID groups.
Malats will oversee both the administration of data and the evaluation of artificial intelligence. The objective, according to her, is to find liquid biopsy indicators that can predict pancreatic cancer in its early stages and combine them into a single signature for use in pancreatic cancer screening programs. “In partnership with expert groups from various European nations and Israel, we will apply revolutionary machine learning algorithms and neural networks.”
A minimally invasive blood test with high sensitivity and specificity could make it possible to diagnose the disease and start treatment earlier, which would reduce mortality and improve the quality of life of patients.
PANCAID is part of the Horizon Europe project and the European Plan to Fight Cancer. It has 17 members from eight countries (Germany, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Belgium, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom). The project kick-off meeting took place from February 13 to 15 in Hamburg (Germany).