With a lack of clear symptoms even when the disease is well progressed, more than 80 percent of pancreatic cancer diagnoses come after the cancer has already spread. This has led some researchers to look beyond blood to urine testing, which is a less complex fluid. Among those is a team at the Queen Mary University of London, which has uncovered a three-protein biomarker in the urine of pancreatic cancer sufferers, suggesting a less invasive, early stage test may be on the way.

At just three percent, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is lower than any form of common cancer. Because it is difficult to detect, sufferers are often diagnosed after it has already spread which rules out surgical removal of the tumor, the only current method of treatment. Adding to the complexity are the difficulties in distinguishing between pancreatic cancer and the inflammatory condition known as chronic pancreatitis. But the Queen Mary researchers say they have made progress in addressing both problems.

The scientists gathered a total of 488 urine samples. 192 came from patients with pancreatic cancer, 92 from those with chronic pancreatitis, 87 from healthy volunteers and another 117 from patients with benign and malignant liver and gall bladder conditions. They tallied around 1,500 proteins in the urine samples, but zeroed in on three in particular for a closer look: LYVE1, REG1A and TFF1.

The pancreatic cancer sufferers had higher levels of all three proteins than the healthy patients. And in a discovery that could help separate them from those with chronic pancreatitis, the latter group displayed significantly lower levels of these proteins. The researchers say that the combined three-protein signature can help detect stage one and two pancreatic cancer with more than 90 percent accuracy. Stage two detection carries a survival rate of 20 percent, while stage one can see survival rates of up to 60 percent.

"This is a biomarker panel with good specificity and sensitivity and we’re hopeful that a simple, inexpensive test can be developed and be in clinical use within the next few years," says lead researcher Dr Tatjana Crnogorac-Jurcevic.

From here, the team aims to carry out further tests on people from high risk groups which includes those with obesity, a family history of pancreatic cancer, heavy smokers and people over 50 with new-onset diabetes. They are also hopeful of collecting ongoing samples from volunteers over the next five to ten years.

Studying samples of those who went on to develop pancreatic cancer could allow them to establish if the three-protein biomarker is present during the latency period. This refers to the time after the genetic changes take place that cause the cancer develop and before the clinical presentation.

The research was published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.