'DNA research could unlock secrets of pancreatic cancer - and save lives'
More work is needed to improve the survival rates for disease, writes Dr Naomi Walsh
The recent stark and sobering statistics from Pancreatic Cancer UK have revealed that pancreatic cancer is projected to become the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death by 2026.
However, oncologists, surgeons, nurses, pathologists, researchers, scientists and advocates working in the area of pancreatic cancer - and the patients and families diagnosed with this disease - are already living with the harsh reality of these statistics.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive tumours; it has a five-year survival rate of 7pc.
This means that 93 people out of 100 diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will die of their disease within five years.
Worryingly, with increasing incidence, the survival rate has not improved dramatically in the past 30 years.
In Ireland, there are approximately 500 pancreatic cancer cases diagnosed each year, according to the National Cancer Registry Ireland.
It is a frightening statistic, and one that is on the increase.
The importance of investing in research and also public awareness of the role of preventative health and the risk factors associated with pancreatic cancer is crucial.
Basic cancer research is the foundation for the identification of early markers of the disease and the development of effective treatments that will improve overall survival rates.
Knowing what to look for is the key to an early diagnosis.
My own research at the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology in Dublin City University is using information from pancreatic cancer DNA which may be used as risk markers for the early diagnosis of this disease.
Advancements in technologies have uncovered differences in the DNA of individuals who develop pancreatic cancer, but we do not understand the importance of these differences on cancer development.
Our work is aiming to find out what these differences mean; if these DNA markers can be used to diagnose pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage.
Using cell and tissue 3D pancreatic cancer laboratory models, which mirror cancer growth in the body, our research is studying how certain single changes in DNA sequence can affect the development of pancreatic cancer.
We are studying whether this information can be used to improve strategies for the early diagnosis, treatment and ultimately prevent pancreatic cancer from taking even more lives.
For now, though, the harsh reality is that the majority of patients are diagnosed at a late, inoperable stage, for which the five-year survival rate is a dismal 2pc.
This is because pancreatic cancer represents an extreme diagnostic challenge and is such a difficult disease to tackle.
Complaints such as unexplained weight loss, abdominal and/or back pain and jaundice can be common symptoms but can also start after the tumour has grown and spread. In addition, pancreatic cancer tends to spread quickly to nearby organs such as the liver, gallbladder and intestines - meaning that patients are ineligible for surgery.
There are various things that we can do though in order to prevent the development of the disease; exercise, a good diet, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and avoiding smoking are all things that we are in control of.
Coincidentally, a small improvement in observed survival rates in past years has been attributed to a decrease in smoking, which is the biggest risk factor for the development of pancreatic cancer.
However, again and again the increasing incidence and death rate due to this disease demonstrates that to date advances in cancer research have not had substantial impact on the diagnosis, prognosis or treatment of pancreatic cancer.
However, with an increasing ageing population, high rates of obesity and type II diabetes, it is not surprising that pancreatic cancer will be among the top cancer killers in the next decade.
In spite of all of this, it is crucial that as a research community we continue to keep searching for the clues that can unlock this disease.
Dr Naomi Walsh is based at the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology, Dublin City University