Screening for Pancreatic Cancer: Why, How, and Who?

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Abstract

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer mortality in the United States, with 5-year survival rates for patients with resectable tumors ranging from 15% to 20%. However, most patients presenting with distant metastases, are not resectable, and have a 5-year survival rate of close to 0%. This demonstrates a need for improved screening to identify pancreatic cancer while the tumor is still localized and amenable to surgical resection. Studies of patients with pancreatic tumors incidentally diagnosed demonstrate longer median survival than tumors discovered only when the patient is symptomatic, suggesting that early detection may improve outcome. Recent evidence from genomic sequencing indicates a 15-year interval for genetic progression of pancreatic cancer from initiation to the metastatic stage, suggesting a sufficient window for early detection. Still, many challenges remain in implementing effective screening. Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer relies on developing screening methodologies with highly sensitive and specific biomarkers and imaging modalities. It also depends on a better understanding of the risk factors and natural history of the disease to accurately identify high-risk groups that would be best served by screening. This review summarizes our current understanding of the biology of pancreatic cancer relevant to methods available for screening. At this time, given the lack of proven benefit in this disease, screening efforts should probably be undertaken in the context of prospective trials.

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