Amino Acids May Be Early Marker of Pancreatic Cancer

An increase in certain amino acids may be an early sign of pancreatic cancer, occurring before the disease is diagnosed and symptoms appear, reports a new study in the journal Nature Medicine.

Researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other institutions gathered blood samples from 1,500 patients that were collected from various large-scale health-tracking studies. These samples were analyzed for more than 100 different metabolites in prediagnostic plasma from individuals with pancreatic cancer and compared to matched controls from four prospective cohort studies.

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Elevated plasma levels of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) were found to be linked to an increased risk of future pancreatic cancer diagnosis by more than two-fold, independent of known predisposing factors. The strongest association was seen among patients with samples collected 2–5 years before diagnosis, at a time when symptoms are likely to be absent. Other experiments later showed that mice with newly formed pancreatic tumors had above-normal blood levels of these amino acids, due to a breakdown of muscle tissue that caused branched amino acids to be released into the bloodstream.

While the increase in amino acids is not significant enough to be the basis of a new blood test for early detection of the disease, the study results may provide insight into how pancreatic tumors interact with patients’ normal issues. In particular, these findings could provide researchers with a greater understanding of how pancreatic cancer can trigger cachexia.

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