Pancreatic Cancer Detection at Early Stages

23. 1. 2019

Pancreatic cancer is the most insidious type of cancer. It is referred to as the “hidden killer” because a period of no symptoms is followed by a sudden and severe onset. It is usually too late to treat it and 95% of patients die, usually within a year. For a long time scientists and doctors had no clue how to treat it, or diagnose it at an early stage. This may change now as a research team led by Professor Michal Holčapek of the Faculty of Chemical Technology at the University of Pardubice developed a reliable method which could give patients all over the world a better chance of early diagnosis, and thus possibly better prognosis. Unfortunately, it will take a lot of work and money to implement it in practice.

The researchers from the Department of Analytical Chemistry in Pardubice can diagnose not only pancreatic cancer, but also breast cancer, prostate and kidney cancer.

So far, they have obtained hundreds of blood samples from volunteers. They use the samples to extract lipids, which are biomolecules that constitute building blocks of cell membranes, and to determine their level in the blood. The obtained data are used to create a specific profile of the individual.

Hundreds of the samples obtained made it possible for the team of Professor Holčapek to learn what the profiles of a healthy individual look like in comparison with the profiles of patients with pancreatic, breast, prostate or kidney cancer. Any new samples can be assigned to one of these profiles, and the disease can be diagnosed at an early stage.

So far, doctors, biologists and chemists have lacked clear idea of the indicators that can detect pancreatic cancer, which has no symptoms for a long time. And when the first symptoms such as stomach ache, backache, indigestion or jaundice, appear, it is usually too late. The research team from the University of Pardubice has used its expertise and long-term experience with lipid analysis, and the method renders very good results.

“Our team has been studying lipid analysis for twenty years now. At one stage we were able to analyse all existing types of lipids, and we had nowhere further to head, but we lacked practical use. That’s why I realized that we could try diagnosing a disease closely related to lipids,” says Professor Michal Holčapek.

And cancer is such a disease. Cancer involves uncontrolled cell division and fast tumour growth. Such cell division requires a vast amount of building material such as lipids.

“This type of cancerous growth requires a vast amount of lipids, which create membranes of tumorous cells, which appear very fast. As the synthesis of lipids is fast, their their structure is slightly less complex. Their profile in a cancerous and healthy cell is different,” says Professor Holčapek to explain the rationale behind the method.

The principle has been known for some time, but it was only the Pardubice team that proved that the differences also appears in body fluids, i.e. the blood sample. The scientists have also proved the typical level of lipids, and know models for individual cancer types. 

“We can determine with high probability that an individual suffers from cancer, and establish with slightly lower probability the respective type of cancer,” adds Professor Holčapek.

The method could save thousands of lives around the world. Its implementation into practice, however, is where the problem lies. The Pardubice team lacks both funding and human resources to develop and obtain certification for the new method. At the moment, the scientists from Pardubice have joined forces with i&i Prague, a Biotech incubator, of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, which provided the first investment for further development of the project. It made a commitment to grant support up to 5 million Czech crowns after providing a first subsidy of CZK 500,000.

“To make the transition from academia into practice, we need much more money and many more people. The results must be verified in several laboratories and reference values for healthy individuals as well as individuals with the disease must be determined. “Without any doubt what I would like to achieve is that the method is used for clinical screening in hospitals.”

The revolutionary findings have already been presented at a number of conferences in the United States, Asia and Europe. The method is successful in 96% of classified samples and in 93% of “blinded” samples where the researchers do not know the diagnosis. It is so high a percentage that the global scientific community is hesitant to believe it.

“I have heard people say that our results are co incredibly high that it simply cannot be the truth. But it is precisely the high success rate in blinded samples that proves that the method really works.”

The scientists from Pardubice have already filed two patent applications, and now they will face a lot of nitty-gritty work as well as a complex and cost-intensive procedure to translate their findings into clinical trials. This may take even several years.

“It depends on whether and how fast we will be able to find an industrial partner or investor, who will help us fund further development,” says Professor Holčapek.

More than 90% of patients with pancreatic cancer die, mostly within a year; and only less than 10% live longer than 5 years. It is the fifth most common cause of death in the developed world, and only a little share of money for oncological research is allocated to it. A small team of researchers from Pardubice know how to deal with this global issue; unfortunately, without more funds and colleagues and lacking support from key institutions, they will face a long way before it is implemented in practice.

“Just getting into the most prestigious journals is a huge problem for a small research team from the Czech Republic,” explains Professor Holčapek. “But we want to try it.”

The team cooperates with the University Hospital in Olomouc and Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute in Brno. It also counts on a group of 150 young volunteers who have their blood taken regularly.

We can ask why a university department in Pardubice succeeded in something that renowned scientists all over the world have tried in vain. “As analytical chemists, we do analytical chemistry with all accuracy and precision. Other departments use biologists to do it. In addition, lipidomics is a very young research field.”

Professor Holčapek says that it was only last year that the Lipidomics Standards Initiative was established to introduce and standardize correct procedures in lipidomic analysis, which should help its future development.

“All in all, it was a combination of various factors: a high number of good samples, a precise method, our own software to process the data, and a bit of luck, which is always a necessary ingredient,” says Professor Holčapek by way of conclusion.

The interview has been borrowed from Aktuálně.cz

Zuzana Hronová
reporter for Aktuálně.cz