By simply shining a tiny light within the small intestine, close to the junction with the pancreas, physicians at Mayo Clinic’s campus in Florida have been able to detect pancreatic cancer 100 percent of the time in a small study. The light, attached to a probe, measures changes in cells and blood vessels in the small intestine produced by a growing cancer in the adjoining pancreas.

This minimally invasive technique, called Polarization Gating Spectroscopy, will now be tested in a much larger international clinical trial led by the Mayo Clinic researchers. The preliminary study suggests it may be possible, one day, to use a less invasive endoscope to screen patients for early development of pancreatic cancer.

The pancreas is notoriously hard to reach and see due to its very deep location in the abdomen, surrounded by intestines. The study investigators theorized that there may be changes in the nearby “normal appearing” tissue of the small intestine which is much more accessible.

“No one ever thought you could detect pancreatic cancer in an area that is somewhat remote from the pancreas, but this study suggests it may be possible,” says Dr. Michael Wallace, chairman of the Division of Gastroenterology at Mayo Clinic in Florida. “Although results are still preliminary, the concept of detection field effects of nearby cancers holds great promise for possible early detection of pancreatic cancer.”

In this study, the Mayo Clinic physicians tested a light probe developed by their long-time collaborators at Northwestern University.

The light, attached to a small fiber-optic probe known as an endoscope, measures the amount of oxygenated blood as well as the size of blood vessels in tissue near the duct where the pancreas joins the small intestine. Because a growing tumor requires a heightened supply of blood, normal tissue in the vicinity of the cancer reveals evidence of enlarged blood vessels and changes in the amount of oxygen within the blood.

Such “field effects” from cancer can be measured in other areas of the GI tract, says Dr. Wallace. “With this technology, others studies have shown that cancerous polyps can be detected more than 11 inches from the polyp itself. Early studies are evaluating if esophageal cancers can also be detected remotely,” he says.

The probe acts “a bit like a metal detector that beeps faster and louder as you get close to cancer,” he says. The researchers are measuring within six to 10 inches of the pancreas in the small intestine immediately next to the pancreas.

Dr. Wallace and his team tested the probe on 10 patients who were later determined to have pancreatic cancer, and on nine participants who did not have pancreatic cancer.

They found that testing both measures — blood vessel diameter and blood oxygenation — detected all 10 pancreatic cancers. But the probe was less precise (63 percent accurate) in determining which of the healthy volunteers did not have pancreatic cancer.

“There is room for improvement in this instrument, and our group is working on that,” he says. “If the studies confirm the early results, it would make the pancreas accessible to a much simpler upper endoscope and that would be a real advance in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.”

Patients now often undergo an endoscopic examination of the upper intestine to search for the cause of heartburn or stomach pain, Dr. Wallace says. An endoscopic probe could be easily outfitted to explore for evidence of pancreatic cancer in patients at heightened risk, he says.

Mihir Patel, M.D., a gastroenterologist who worked with Dr. Wallace on the study, says that despite of intense research, we haven’t been successful in significantly improving the overall survival associated with pancreatic cancer in the past several decades. That’s because we haven’t been able to detect the cancer early enough. Developing a technique to screen the patients and detect pancreatic cancer at an early stage would be a potential breakthrough. In preliminary data, this technology has shown to hold similar potential.

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