A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is devastating and nearly fatal for most patients, with lower survival rates than a majority of cancers. That’s why research scientists from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to discover its earliest signs. They published their success in the journal Nature Medicine.

"Most people with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC, which is by far the most common form of pancreatic cancer) are diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage, and many die within a year of diagnosis," said the study’s coauthor Brian Wolpin, a researcher at Dana-Farber, in a press release. "Detecting the disease earlier in its development may improve our ability to treat it successfully. In this study, we asked whether PDAC produces metabolic changes — changes in the way the body uses energy and nutrients — that can be detected before the disease is diagnosed."

Pancreatic cancer is estimated to affect an additional 46,420 people in 2014, according to the National Cancer Institute. Only about 6.7 percent of those diagnosed will survive their prognosis, however, the earlier the cancer is caught the higher the survival rate, which is why making it easier to find those signs will be key to their chances of living. The key lies in a newly discovered branch-like chain of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.

"We found that higher levels of branched chain amino acids were present in people who went on to develop pancreatic cancer compared to those who did not develop the disease," Wolpin said. “The amount of time that would elapse before those individuals were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ranged from two to 25 years, although the highest risk was in the several years before diagnosis, the researchers found.”

The researchers studied blood samples from 1,500 people and analyzed them for 100 different substances in the body. They then looked at the patients who had developed pancreatic cancer down the line and compared them to those who hadn’t. They found a significantly high increase in the protein branches. They concluded that this increase is linked to early pancreatic tumor growth, and when they tested their hypothesis in mice, they found high levels of branched amino acids in their blood. The branched amino acids are produced when cancer grows and breaks down muscle tissue. The body attempts to repair that breakdown with amino acids to no avail, but instead, fortunately, leaves behind little microscopic footprints for scientists to find before it’s too late.

"What was surprising about our results was that it appears the breakdown of muscle protein begins much earlier in the disease process than previously appreciated," said the study’s coauthor Matthew Vander Heiden, a researcher from Dana-Farber, in the press release. "This work has the potential to spur progress in detecting pancreatic tumors earlier and identifying new treatment strategies for those with the disease.”

Source: Wolpin B, Heiden MV, Mayers J, et al. Nature Medicine. 2014.