Diagnosing a deadly cancer sooner and more definitively: An interview with Dr. Brian Haab

Pancreatic cancer is an insidious disease that often evades detection until it has spread beyond the pancreas, seriously complicating treatment and reducing the chances of successful remission. For years, there has been little progress toward finding improved ways to catch this deadly disease early on.

But that may be changing, thanks to a simple new combination blood test developed by Van Andel Research Institute’s Dr. Brian Haab and his colleagues. We asked Dr. Haab to tell us about the test, why early detection is so important and the next steps for moving the test into the doctor’s office.

Please tell us about your research and what you found.

We were looking for a blood test to detect pancreatic cancer based on the levels of specific molecules in the blood, where the levels, if they’re high, we would be able to detect pancreatic cancer versus some other benign condition of the pancreas.

The previous test — the best test so far — was developed 40 years ago. It’s not used for screening because it doesn’t detect enough pancreatic cancers with a less than 5 percent false-positive rate — it only gets less than half of the pancreatic cancers.

We have found a molecule that’s elevated in many of those patients that are low [in the molecule detected by the other test], so that by bringing the two together we can detect almost 70 percent of pancreatic cancer patients with a less than 5 percent false-positive rate. We’ve proven this now in blinded studies and we think we’re performing well enough that we can begin screening for the disease among people at a higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer.

What are the benefits of a blood test for pancreatic cancer?

A blood test is particularly valuable for pancreatic cancer because the symptoms are not visually evident like they are for some other cancers. A biopsy is difficult and potentially dangerous, imaging is expensive, it’s burdensome. A blood test is something that can be broadly applied and not very expensive.


How do you envision this test being used?

This test initially would be applied to people at a higher risk for developing pancreatic cancer, such individuals would be those with a family history of the disease, new-onset diabetes, obesity, a history of cysts or pancreatitis in pancreas. They would be at higher risk and so we would want to screen or monitor these patients to see if they are developing an incipient pancreatic cancer. If we can detect it early, they have a much better chance of having a good outcome.

Why are people who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes later in life at a higher risk for pancreatic cancer?

The reason we screen people with new-onset diabetes is the new-onset diabetes may be the result of very early stage pancreatic cancer so they are at a higher risk of having a very early stage pancreatic cancer. If a person has had longstanding diabetes, they’re not at as high of risk for having early stage pancreatic cancer.

Why is it important to catch cancer early?

The reason we want to monitor for the early stage is because if the cancer can be detected at an early stage before it has spread throughout the organ or disseminated to other sites the outcomes for those patients are much better.

What are the next steps?

So, our goal is to make this available to patients and doctors. The next step in doing that is to get the assay established in a clinical laboratory that would be able to receive samples and run the test and give results back. We will initially get this available for our clinical partners on a research level and if we continue to see performance like we already have seen in our retrospective studies, we will offer if more broadly. We anticipate a relatively low-cost test that could have a high impact in detecting and diagnosing pancreatic cancer.

Read the news release here. Learn more about Dr. Haab’s work here.