According to the American Cancer Society, about 3% of all cancer diagnoses in the United States each year are pancreatic cancer, while about 7% of all cancer deaths are due to pancreatic cancer.

This disproportionate amount of deaths per diagnosis is partly because pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early and to treat in later stages. Newly developed early detection blood tests aim to solve this problem.

To date, blood tests for pancreatic cancer are only available for people with a known high risk for pancreatic cancer, such as people with certain genetic abnormalities or a family history of pancreatic cancer. However, new screening tests for the general public are currently being developed.

In this article, we take a look at all early-detection blood tests for pancreatic cancer — those that are currently available as well as tests that could become available in the future.

There are currently two blood tests available that might be able to detect pancreatic cancer earlier than current diagnostic testing and before any symptoms develop:

  • The GalleriTM test
  • The PanCan-D test

Each test costs around $1,000 and aren’t covered by insurance plans. They’re also not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The tests are intended for people who are at high risk for pancreatic cancer, and require a doctor’s order.

The GRAIL’s GalleriTM test

The GalleriTM test looks for the presence of over 50 types of cancer. This includes two different types of pancreatic cancer, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, and pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. The test is designed for people who have a high risk of cancer, such as people with certain genetic abnormalities or people with a family history of cancer.

The GalleriTM test is a blood test. You’ll need a doctor’s order to take the test. Once you have a doctor’s order, a blood test kit can be mailed to your home or your doctor’s office. You’ll then have blood drawn, and the results will be available in about 2 weeks.

Results of the GalleriTM test can’t diagnose pancreatic cancer. However, they can indicate the presence of cancer in your body. If your results are positive, you and your doctor can take additional steps.

The Immunovia Inc. IMMray PanCan-d test

The PanCan-d test is the only blood test made specifically for pancreatic cancer. It is only available to people who are considered to be at high risk for pancreatic cancer, such as people with a family history of pancreatic cancer or people who have certain genetic abnormalities.

The test looks for biomarkers in your blood that can indicate cancer, as well as biomarkers which indicate that your immune system is fighting cancer.

You’ll need a doctor’s order to take this test. A sample of your blood will be collected and analyzed in a lab. Results will be available in about a week.

Results can be negative, borderline, or can indicate pancreatic cancer. Results that indicate pancreatic cancer aren’t enough to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. You’ll need to take additional steps with your medical team if your results confirm the presence of pancreatic cancer biomarkers.

Finding pancreatic cancer early can dramatically improve outcomes. Researchers are working to develop screening tests that can detect pancreatic cancer early and expand treatment options.

Examples of tests in development include:

  • At Lund University, in Lund, Sweden, researchers have developed a test that measures antibody fragments associated with pancreatic cancer. During its initial trial phase, the Lund University test had a 96% accuracy rate.
  • At The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Health Moore Cancer Center, San Diego, California, researchers have successfully found pancreatic cancer using a test that analyzes an output of cells called extracellular vesicles. Extracellular vesicles contain proteins that can also be found in tumors. In trials, The UCSD Health test was able to predict how likely it is that these proteins will become cancerous.

In 2012, high school student Jack Andraka won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair grand prize and the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for developing a possible method of detecting the early stages of pancreatic cancer.

His test method used paper antibody sensor strips to measure levels of a cancer biomarker called mesothelin. The test was said to be fast, accurate, and inexpensive.

However, although it received acclaim and drew international attention, Jack Andraka’s work hasn’t been published in any peer-reviewed scientific journals. Additionally, the initial results haven’t been duplicated by further studies. The test strips aren’t currently in development and no further clinic tests have been announced.

Early-detection blood tests can indicate the presence of cancer makers, but they aren’t enough for a diagnosis. Additional tests are still needed to confirm pancreatic cancers. These might include:

  • A CT Scan: For a CT scan, you’ll have a contrast dye injected before images are taken. The scan then creates detailed images of your pancreas. It can help doctors see the size and location of your tumor.
  • A positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A PET scan uses a sugar substance instead of a contrast dye. Cancer cells absorb more sugar than healthy cells, and will appear brighter on the PET scan as a result. PET scans are often used to see if cancer has spread.
  • An endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): An EUS uses a tool called an endoscope to insert a tiny ultrasound probe into the pancreas so detailed images can be collected. The probe reaches the pancreas via a tube guided down the throat. IV sedation is used for the procedure.
  • A magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): An MRCP is a specialized type of MRI that creates images of your pancreas and bile ducts.
  • A percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): During a PTC, a thin and hollow needle is used to inject contrast dye into your liver. An X-ray of your bile and pancreatic ducts is taken.
  • Liver function testing: Liver function testing is a blood test that measures the levels of chemicals produced by your liver. Pancreatic cancer causes similar symptoms to some liver diseases, and liver function testing can help rule out those conditions.
  • A biopsy: A biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. During a biopsy, a sample of pancreatic tissue is removed and analyzed for cancer cells. A pancreas biopsy is often done at the same time as an EUS.
  • Molecular testing: Molecular testing provides a detailed analysis of tissue and cell samples. The testing looks for certain gene mutations and proteins and can help your doctors plan your treatment.

You’re considered “high risk” if you have several of the known risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

People at high risk for pancreatic cancer are candidates for surveillance programs. In a surveillance program, a doctor can monitor you for signs and symptoms of cancer. People who are in surveillance programs might be eligible for early-detection blood tests.

Risk factors for pancreatic cancer include:

  • a family history of pancreatic cancer: Your risk of pancreatic cancer is higher if you have a parent, sibling, or child who had pancreatic cancer.
  • inherited gene mutations: Genetic syndromes that run in families account for about 10% of all pancreatic cancers. Genetic syndromes associated with pancreatic cancer include hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome, hereditary breast cancer, familial atypical multiple mole melanoma, familial pancreatitis, Lynch syndrome, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.
  • smoking: Smoking is associated with a doubled risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • weight: Obesity raises your risk for pancreatic cancer by about 20%.
  • age: People of any age can get pancreatic cancer, but the risk goes up as you age. Most people with pancreatic cancer are over 65 at the time of diagnosis.
  • diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is associated with a higher risk of diabetes. There is no clear link between type 1 diabetes and pancreatic cancer.
  • chronic pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis is a condition that occurs when your pancreas is inflamed. It can be inherited, or caused by lifestyle factors such as heavy alcohol use and smoking. No matter the cause, it is associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • workplace exposure to chemicals: Exposure to some chemicals used in the metalworking and dry cleaning industries is linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
  • gender: Rates of pancreatic cancer are slightly higher in men. This might be partially due to men being more likely to have other risk factors, such as smoking and workplace exposure to chemicals.
  • race: In the United States, pancreatic cancer is more common among Black Americans than white Americans. This might be partially due to higher rates of other risk factors — such as smoking and diabetes — among Black Americans.

Some studies have also shown that there might be a link between pancreatic cancer and factors such as:

  • eating red meat
  • eating foods with high saturated fat
  • consuming sugary drinks
  • drinking alcohol
  • physical inactivity
  • drinking coffee
  • stomach infections

However, not all studies have confirmed these risk factors, and more research is needed.

In many cases, the early stages of pancreatic cancer don’t cause symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they can be easy to mistake for the symptoms of another, less serious, condition.

If you experience any symptoms of pancreatic cancer for more than a week or two, it’s important to see a doctor. Early symptoms of pancreatic cancer can include:

Most of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by conditions other than pancreatic cancer. However, it’s still important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Early detection of pancreatic cancer makes a big difference in treatment options and outcomes.

Can people in their 20s get pancreatic cancer?

Your risk for pancreatic cancer increases as you age. However, people of any age can develop pancreatic cancer.

Is it hard to catch pancreatic cancer early?

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose early. Pancreatic cancer very rarely causes early symptoms, and people without an elevated risk for pancreatic risk aren’t typically screened for cancer.

Often, pancreatic cancer isn’t found until symptoms appear unless it’s found during testing for another, unrelated, condition. As more early-detection tests are developed and become available, this might change, and screening for pancreatic cancer could become standard.

How is pancreatic cancer treated?

Pancreatic cancer is treated based on the stage a person is in when they are diagnosed and on their overall health. Treatment options include:

  • surgery: Surgery to completely remove the tumor is the primary treatment option. However, it’s not always possible if the tumor has spread. Completely removing the tumor is the only cure for pancreatic cancer.
  • chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is used to kill cancer cells. It might be done before surgery to help shrink the tumor, after surgery to help keep the cancer from returning, or in place of surgery in the case of inoperable tumors.
  • Radiation: Like chemotherapy, radiation kills cancer cells. It can shrink tumors and can help prevent them from regrowing.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy helps your body fight cancer cells. It can be used when pancreatic cancer is widespread or if it reoccurs.

What’s the outlook for pancreatic cancer?

The outlook for pancreatic cancer depends on factors such as the stage at diagnosis, how well you respond to treatment, and your overall health.

As of 2018, the overall 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer was 11%. However, it’s important to remember that survival statistics are always based on past data.

The 11% statistic is based on people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer between 2011 and 2017. Advances in cancer treatment have been made in the past several years, and it’s likely that current survival rates are higher.

Pancreatic cancer is most treatable when it’s found early.

Currently, there are two blood tests that can help people at high risk for pancreatic cancer detect it earlier than standard diagnostic tools. These tests aren’t covered by insurance plans or FDA-approved, but they can be part of the pancreatic cancer surveillance and diagnostic process for high-risk people.

Additional tests are in development and might be available in the future. A biopsy is still the only way to confirm a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.