Government and Health Care

National Cancer Institute picks VAI scientist to head pancreatic cancer research

October 22, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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National Cancer Institute picks VAI scientist to head pancreatic cancer research
The National Cancer Institute, based in Bethesda, Md., is one of the Van Andel Institute’s many cancer research partners. Photo via Facebook

The National Cancer Institute has chosen a Van Andel Institute scientist to head a $2.3 million project to develop new molecular biomarkers for pancreatic cancer, which has one of the lowest survival rates of any major cancer.

Brian Haab, head of VAI’s Laboratory of Cancer Immunodiagnostics, will lead the five-year study in collaboration with David Smith of Emory University. The team also includes researchers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Palo Alto Research Center, University of Georgia and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Because of its tendency to spread before a diagnosis has even been done, and because of its resistance to chemotherapy, pancreatic cancer has one of the poorest survival rates of any major cancer.

According to the NCI, pancreatic cancer will strike more than 43,000 Americans in 2012 and kill more than 37,000.

The term “biomarker” refers to a measurable characteristic that reflects the severity or presence of a disease state. In this case, researchers will be looking for the presence of carbohydrates in the bloodstream as an indicator of pancreatic cancer.

“One of the most common features of pancreatic cancers is the increased abundance of a carbohydrate structure called the CA 19-9 antigen,” said Haab. “This carbohydrate structure is attached to many different proteins, many of which are secreted from the tumor into the blood circulation, making it available for detection as a biomarker.”

The detection of CA 19-9 from blood samples is widely used for confirmation of a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and to get information about disease progression. Unfortunately, the test is not useful for early detection or diagnosis because about 20 percent to 30 percent of incipient tumors of all types produce low levels of CA 19-9.

“The low levels are usually due to inherited genetic mutations in the genes responsible for the synthesis of CA 19-9,” said Haab. “However, patients who produce low CA 19-9 produce alternate carbohydrate structures that are abnormally elevated in cancer.”

Characterizing and identifying these alternate carbohydrate structures known as glycans is the focus of the new study, which could lead to an improved ability to detect cancer in the CA 19-9-low patients.

The project will make use of several new developments to address the problem of identifying the diagnostic glycans in patients with low CA 19-9 levels. The project also involves work with so-called “shotgun glycomics.”

“We anticipate these new approaches advancing pancreatic cancer diagnostics as well as benefitting other glycobiology research in cancer,” said Haab.

VAI is an independent research organization involved with more than 200 researchers in more than 20 on-site laboratories and in collaborative partnerships that span the globe.

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