Czech researchers develop unique method for early detection of pancreatic cancer

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

Czech researchers have developed a unique method to detect pancreatic and other forms of cancer that often go undiagnosed in time to be treated. Their method, based on the lipidomic profiling of human serum, can detect the disease by testing a single drop of blood.

Prof. Michal Holčapek, an analytical chemist at the University of Pardubice, told Czech Radio that years ago it occurred to him that changes in lipidome might be highest when pancreatic cancer is present. And if so, that it should be possible to detect the disease in time to treat it.

“Our method is based on confirming the assumption that healthy and tumorous cells differ from each other and so have a different lipid membrane composition.

“When we measure the composition of cell lipidome, they differ quite significantly. Our theory was such changes would also be reflected in the composition of body fluids, such as blood, plasma or urine, which we were able to confirm.

“We have measured various types of cancer in several thousand samples but are furthest along as regards pancreatic cancer. We can distinguish healthy patients from those with pancreatic cancer in 90 to nearly 95 percent of cases.”

Michal Holčapek,  photo: archive of University of Pardubice

When a tumour grows, there is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, as the tumour needs a lot of lipids, or “building materials”, in lay terms. They collect lipids from their immediate surrounding rather waiting for enzymes to act.

Prof. Holčapek says it may be that their success in detecting that particular form of cancer is due to it being among the most aggressive, so the changes in the body a more dramatic. But breast and kidney cancer, among other forms, have virtually the same changes in lipids.

“The success rate in the determination of such about 85 to 90 percent, so not as good as for pancreatic cancer. But all of them can be determined by this single method, because we always quantify lipids in the same way, just the final statistical processing differs. So, the method has the potential to detect all types of cancer, at the same time.”

Cancer screening programs based on the analysis of body fluids can improve the survival time of patients, who are often diagnosed too late at an incurable stage. Prof. Holčapek says his method – the lipidomic profiling of human serum – outperforms the standard tumour marker CA 19-9 used to manage pancreatic cancer, especially in the early stage, and is comparable to established imaging diagnostic methods.

“If successful, it will have a great impact on society, whether for pancreatic or more types of cancer. There is nothing else like it in the world. Unfortunately, some biomarkers are not precise enough, so they are not used for early detection, even if they are targeted by large scientific teams. But in the case of our method, it looks very promising.”

Prof. Holčapek’s team at the University of Pardubice, in tandem with researchers at other Czech institutions, has secured a European patent for the unique method. They are now preparing a clinical validation of their findings from the screening phase. That sampling, measurement and evaluation with take several years, he says, but the method could become standard practice as early as in 2025.