EVANSTON, Ill. --- Optical technology developed by a Northwestern University biomedical engineer shown to be effective in the early detection of colon cancer now appears promising for detecting pancreatic cancer, the fourth most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States.
Known as a silent killer, with no method of early detection, pancreatic cancer spreads rapidly and seldom is detected in its early stages. The new technique could lead to the first screening method for pancreatic cancer in asymptomatic patients, said Vadim Backman, developer of the technology and professor of biomedical engineering at Northwesterns Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Backman and Yang Liu, a former graduate student of Backmans, teamed up with physicians at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare (ENH) to test the technique in a pilot study of 51 patients. The researchers found they could detect both early- and advanced-stage pancreatic cancer without touching or imaging the pancreas.
The extraordinarily sensitive technique, which is minimally invasive and takes advantage of certain light-scattering effects, can detect abnormal changes in cells lining the duodenum even though the cells appear normal when examined with a conventional microscope. The results, which will be published in the Aug. 1 issue of the journal Clinical Cancer Research, show that the changes accurately predict the presence of cancer.
More than 30,000 people in the United States die each year from pancreatic cancer. Count Basie, Ren Magritte, Billy Carter and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin all died from it; Luciano Pavarotti is fighting the disease. The overall five-year survival rate is less than 5 percent; most patients die within the first two years. If detected early, when the tumor can be successfully removed, however, the survival rate is 100 percent if a precancerous lesion is found and 50 percent for a stage 1 cancer.