New Hope for Pancreatic Cancer

Posted 23 Mar 2023

Researchers at Flinders are on a mission to improve survival rates for patients with one of the deadliest forms of cancer. And their work has received a boost, thanks to your generous support.

Dr Jean Winter and her Flinders University research team will soon begin trials of a world-first blood biomarker test for patients with pancreatic cancer.

The test detects tiny fragments of DNA in the patient’s blood and will be used during cancer treatment to see if the tumour is responding to therapy.

This builds on previous work by Flinders University researchers which showed the test is sensitive for detecting bowel cancer, with new evidence indicating it is also sensitive to detecting pancreatic cancer.

“We have shown our blood biomarker test is sensitive for detection of pancreatic cancer, and we now want to see what happens to these blood DNA markers during treatment,” Dr Winter explains.

“Do the blood markers go down when the tumour shrinks? Do they remain the same if the tumour does not respond? Do they increase if the tumour gets larger or spreads to other parts of the body?”

Pancreatic cancer has one of the poorest survival rates of all the cancers diagnosed, with only one in 10 patients diagnosed today expected to live beyond five years.

That’s a statistic Ross Surace doesn’t like to hear.

He lost both his mother and mother-in-law to pancreatic cancer and was diagnosed with the disease himself in 2017. Together with friend Agnes Maddock, also diagnosed in 2017, they now facilitate the South Australian Pancare Support Group for people living with pancreatic cancer, their families and carers.

“I know that I’m one of the fortunate ones in that my cancer was operable,” Ross says.

 “But I try not to focus on the statistics of pancreatic cancer, and instead focus on facing it with a positive mindset and with hope.

“I have great hopes for research, and while that hope is that there is a cure in the not-too-distant future, research focusing on early detection and treatment is so important for the short-term goals.”

Dr Winter’s research provides a hopeful alternative to current pancreatic cancer monitoring, which includes invasive, time-consuming, and costly scans to see if the tumour is responding to treatment.

Importantly the biomarker test also has the potential to pick up ‘minimal residual disease’ – tiny amounts of tumour left over after treatment is completed, which are so small they cannot be detected on scans.

“We hope that by giving patients with pancreatic cancer the option of having a simple but useful blood test to detect their cancer, this will enable the patient and their treating clinician to make more informed decisions about their cancer care,” Dr Winter says.

“This will not only have the potential to extend the patient’s life, but we hope it will also improve their quality of life and give them a sense of reassurance that they are receiving the best care available to them.”

Dr Winter welcomed support for more research into pancreatic cancer.

“We need to be doing more research into this deadly cancer to ensure these patients have a much better outcome than what they have now.”

This research is being carried out in a collaboration between Flinders University, Flinders Medical Centre, The Royal Adelaide Hospital and The Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Dr Winter’s project is one of 31 research projects to share in $750,000 in funding as part of Flinders Foundation’s annual Health Seed Grant Round – made possible thanks to a partnership with Flinders University and the generosity of individuals, organisations and groups in our community.


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