Pancreatic cancer develops more slowly than previously thought

In collaboration with Adfero

Pancreatic cancer develops more slowly than previously thought, according to a US study.

At present, the disease is usually detected when it is at an advanced stage, when it may have already spread to other parts of the body, as there are often no symptoms in earlier stages of the disease.

However, research published in the journal Nature now suggests that the disease progresses slowly in its early stages, leaving a window of opportunity for diagnosis when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Scientists had previously believed that pancreatic cancer spreads very early in its development, but the new study contradicts this idea, according to Dr Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, associate professor of pathology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Research Centre.

She revealed: "For the first time, we have a quantifiable estimate of the development of pancreatic cancer, and when it would be best to intervene."

There may be a "very broad window for screening", but most patients are currently diagnosed "after that window has closed", she added.

The discovery was made by studying tissue samples from seven patients. The researchers extracted DNA from some of the cells and analysed the chemical 'letters' that form individual genes.

They discovered that DNA faults that occurred before the cancer spread and those that happened after the cancer had spread were present within the initial pancreatic tumour years before the secondary tumours started to cause symptoms.

Scientists now hope to develop a screening method that detects pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, such as an endoscopy to look inside the body for signs of the disease.

Professor Bert Vogelstein, director of the Ludwig Centre for Cancer Genetics & Therapeutics at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre, said that many pancreatic cancer cases currently appear to have a "long lag time" before they are detected.

"This leaves room to develop new early, diagnostic tools and intervene with potentially curative surgery," he added.

Dr Laura Bell, science communications officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This early research suggests there is potentially an opportunity to detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage - when treatment might be more successful - as the cancer may develop more slowly than previously thought. Although developing an effective screening test is still some way off, this study adds to our understanding of how we could tackle this disease in future.

"As part of Cancer Research UK's strategy, we are focusing our attention on hard-to-treat cancers including pancreatic cancer - aiming to reduce the number of people dying from the disease."


  • Yachida, S. et al (2010). Distant metastasis occurs late during the genetic evolution of pancreatic cancer Nature, 467 (7319), 1114-1117 DOI: 10.1038/nature09515