VAI Cancer Research Yields Results

November 7, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Advocates for pancreatic cancer patients around the nation are rallying to increase research funding and to spread the word about the lethal nature of the disease throughout November, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month.

Pancreatic cancer has a 99 percent mortality rate  — the highest of any form of cancer, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), a national advocacy group.

Though it’s among the most lethal of cancers, as yet there’s no test for routine screening and early detection.

Treatment options remain minimal, as well, because this type of cancer isn’t typically detected until it is far advanced.

PanCAN estimates that some 30,700 people in the United States will be diagnosed with the disease this year and 30,000 of them will die.

Meanwhile, in a laboratory on Michigan Street hill, two Van Andel Research Institute scientists are more than six months into a two-year study designed to identify markers in blood that may help detect pancreatic cancer at earlier stages.

Scientific Investigator Brian Haab, Ph.D., head of VARI’s Laboratory of DNA and Protein Microarray Technology, is directing the study.

This spring, Haab received a $70,000 grant from the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation during the foundation’s first round of 2003 funding.

The foundation supported 10 new research projects totaling nearly $1 million in grant monies in its first grant cycle.

Haab’s study is the only one of the 10 focused on pancreatic cancer.

He said the grant was awarded based on some preliminary research his lab had done.

“We had some interesting preliminary results and we used that to get this current grant funding,” Haab recalled.

The pancreas is seated underneath the stomach. Because the organ isn’t palpable, physicians can’t tell when there’s a tumor mass, Haab explained.

“The symptoms don’t really show up until it’s late stage, so there’s no way to really detect pancreatic cancer until it’s well advanced. With any cancer, once it’s well advanced, there aren’t many treatment options.”

Today, only about 15 percent to 20 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are candidates for surgery, Haab noted.

He said if the disease could be detected earlier, a much higher percentage of patients would be candidates for surgery and chemotherapy would likely be more effective, as well.

Two scientists in Haab’s lab are using antibody microarray technology to gather complex protein measurements from pancreatic cancer patients and non-cancerous patients.

The technology enables scientists to measure dozens and dozens of proteins simultaneously out of small sample volumes, thus speeding the pace of research.

It also allows them to test many different proteins for their ability to distinguish pancreatic cancer patients from non-cancerous patients in the control group, Haab said.

“We measure on the order of about 100 different proteins. That’s a big advance over previous technologies which allowed you to measure just one or two or a handful of proteins at a time.”

Haab’s team is looking at blood proteins of pancreatic cancer patients, healthy people, and patients with pancreatitis, a benign disease involving inflammation or infection of the pancreas.

“It’s really important to distinguish cancer from benign disease because you don’t want to have false positive readings.” Haab explained. “So you need those patients in the set that have a benign disease but do not have cancer.”

He said there are many proteins that have altered abundances in the blood in association with pancreatic cancer, but there are many benign conditions that also can cause elevated protein levels.

So even though there’s a statistical association in the population at large, he said, that association is not strong enough to be practically useful in the clinic.

“We can look at the use of combinations of proteins as a signature. If you combine them together and measure them together, there is a signature pattern of these proteins that is different in pancreatic cancer patients.

“So we are identifying individual proteins and combinations of proteins that change in a coordinated fashion and are different in pancreatic cancer patients as compared to controls.”

The blood samples of pancreatic cancer patients are coming from three sources: Yale University, Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Corp. of Illinois, and from VARI Scientific Investigator Han-Mo Koo, Ph.D., who has been collecting samples from West Michigan hospitals for use in clinical trials.

Haab estimates the two-year study will involve 60 pancreatic cancer patients and about 30 patients with pancreatitis.

As part of the study, VARI scientists will look at the blood serum of healthy people, as well as blood samples from other cancers of the gastrointestinal tract such as colon cancer, to see how they compare to pancreatic cancer.

Blood samples are a little easier to come by than tumor tissue samples, because blood can be accessed with minimal invasiveness, he noted.

“Blood is used for routine screening. So if we find something in the blood that’s a strong indicator of pancreatic cancer, then that opens up the possibility that it can be used for annual screening.”           

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