Early Detection of Pancreatic Cancer Using Light

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest diseases in the US. Out of almost 38,000 people diagnosed with the disease every year there are an estimated 34,000 deaths. Pancreatic cancer is hard to detect and requires invasive procedures, which are not always accurate and are usually performed too late. A group of researchers from Evanston, Illinois developed a way of detecting the deadly cancer in its early stages using a simple endoscopy.
Pancreatic cancer, unseen at its earliest stages by any other method, can be detected by examining tissue from inside the duodenum, the uppermost section of the small intestine (Credit: NSF)
Pancreatic cancer, unseen at its earliest
stages by any other method, can be detected
by examining tissue from inside the duodenum, the
uppermost section of the small intestine (Credit: NSF)

The researcher’s method involves a new imaging technique, which uses light scattering to detect changes in the duodenal mucosa, the mucosa of the upper-most part of the small intestine. A light beam is directed at the mucosa and the light scattering is measured. The scattering can determine structural changes in the scale of nanometers. This procedure can be done easily enough using endoscopy.

Detecting the pancreatic cancer via changes in the intestine’s structure is a result of the “field effect” hypothesis. The hypothesis suggests that cancerous tumor in one part of an organ will influence the nanostructure of the entire organ or even neighboring ones. Since the duodenum communicates with the pancreatic duct they can be considered as being in the same organ. What makes the change in the duodenum is not yet known but it is probably related to cancer in the pancreas.

In an experiment conducted on 19 people diagnosed with pancreatic carcinoma and on 32 people serving as the control group, the imaging method obtained scores of 95% sensitivity and 91% specificity. This means that the procedure was able to detect about 19 out of 20 tumors, and within the healthy people mistakenly detected cancer in less than 1 out of 10 volunteers on average. The method enabled detection even in the early stages of the tumor with 94% specificity and 100% sensitivity.

This new procedure will undergo further testing in order to ensure it is well established so that it may become widely used. This new imaging method could help in detecting the pancreatic cancer early on, something that was almost impossible until now, and may possibly extend the lives of future pancreatic cancer patients. Imaging using light scattering may be expanded as a detection method for other types of cancer, ultimately allowing the medical staff to examine patients without penetrating internal organs.

 Researchers can look at how light bounces off of human tissue to detect subtle changes potentially caused by cancer (Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation)
Researchers can look at how light bounces off of human
tissue to detect subtle changes potentially
caused by cancer (Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, NSF)
More information on the Evanston research can be found on the NSF website.