Europe Is Facing A Pancreatic Cancer Emergency


                                                            By Siobhan Harris

Pancreatic cancer is the seventh most common type of cancer in Europe but is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths, behind lung, colorectal, and breast cancers. By 2030, it is widely predicted to become the second most common cause of cancer mortality.

"It's a health emergency for society, with mortality rates at over 90%," warned Professor Alfredo Carrato, the chairperson of Pancreatic Cancer Europe.

There are many challenges with pancreatic cancer: Lack of awareness, difficult to diagnose, no screening programs for the general population, poor survival rate, and limited treatment options.

Life expectancy at the time of diagnosis is just 4.6 months. Only 3% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will survive for 5 years.

A 2024 systematic analysis suggested that people living in Western Europe are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those living anywhere else in the world.

Carrato, emeritus professor of medical oncology at the University of Alcalá, Madrid, Spain, wasn't surprised. He said: "I think the lifestyle in Europe plays a part. We have all of the risk factors in society like obesity, our sedentary behavior, too much red meat consumption, and excess alcohol intake."

Other risk factors include smoking, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, and a family history.

The incidence of pancreatic cancer increases with age, so the longer life expectancy in Western Europe could also contribute to the region's high rates.

A Silent Killer

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to identify. It is often asymptomatic. Symptoms that do show themselves, like back pain, weight loss, and nausea, are nonspecific and make early diagnosis challenging.

Professor Mattias Löhr from the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, said: "It's a dismal disease. It's not accessible for any easy screening or surveillance. Even early diagnosis is too late with pancreatic cancer."

There have been few advancements in patient outcomes over the past few decades.

Only about 20% of patients are suitable candidates for surgery that could prolong their lives.

Also, cancer reoccurs in two thirds of surgical candidates, said Carrato, and oncologists don't know how to identify them in advance. "I have patients who survive 3 months and others who survive 4 or 5 years, so there's a need to identify these subtypes at a molecular level for personalized, clinical, and translational research and therapies."

Löhr agreed: "All of the medical therapies are not really working well enough for pancreatic cancer in sharp contrast to other cancers."

How Can Rates Be Reduced?

"Pancreatic Cancer Europe is working in every EU state to try to raise awareness," said Carrato. "We should have primary prevention programs to modify lifestyle risks. We also need funds for translational and clinical research. Secondary prevention isn't possible yet as we haven't identified the higher-risk population who would be the target for screening."

Screening programs are available for the 10% of people who have a family history of pancreatic cancer. But, for the vast majority, there are no tests or screenings that allow for earlier detection.

"We need blood or stool tests that have high specificity and sensitivity that are cost-effective," said Carrato.

"It's a type of cancer with a particular and very aggressive biology. There is a lack of pancreatic tumor tissue for research, as many patients are diagnosed by fine-needle aspiration cytology. It's a challenge for researchers. We have no biomarkers available to direct our decisions; no precision oncology," he added.

Still, there are some encouraging developments.

The European PANCAID project (pancreatic cancer initial detection via liquid biopsy) is trying to find biomarkers to screen at-risk groups for earlier diagnosis via a blood test.

Also, the European Union (EU)-funded PANCAIM project (pancreatic cancer artificial intelligence [AI] for genomics and personalized medicine) has developed an AI algorithm that detects small cancers in CT scans that even experienced radiologists might easily overlook.

The project's head, Henkjan Huisman, is professor of medical imaging AI at Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He said: "It's an extremely important step, as 20% of people with pancreas cancer have the ability to undergo surgery, which means they might live substantially longer. We believe if the tumors are found earlier, thanks to the algorithm, they are smaller and more contained, and so substantially more than 20% of patients would be suitable for surgery, which would be a breakthrough."

Löhr added that a messenger RNA vaccine is being developed in the United States to prevent pancreatic cancer from returning after surgery and is demonstrating encouraging results in its early trials.

The Road Toward Better Care

To improve cancer care in Europe, Carrato said: "Reference centers should be a requirement in health policy programs because the outcomes are much better than in centers which only perform fewer surgeries, and Pancreatic Cancer Europe is working with the EU in this direction."

Finland is a country that appears to have succeeded in this regard. Its 2005 Health Care Act, for example, ensures that cancer patients are able to receive care in one of its five specialized hospitals.

More research funding is also needed. According to Pancreatic Cancer Europe, only 2% of EU funding on cancer is spent on pancreatic cancer.

The American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts & Figures 2024 makes room for some optimism, with the 5-year survival rate in the United States jumping to 13% from 6% in the society's 2014 report, as a result of earlier diagnoses and more personalized treatment. But, even with potentially longer survival rates, said Löhr, "we are still on the trajectory of pancreatic cancer being number two for cancer deaths by 2030."

"We need more money on research, centralized surgery, and networking between European countries," said Carrato. "This networking would need more money for prevention, better diagnosis, and treatment. The problem is pancreatic cancer incidence is increasing and mortality is also in parallel, and we are not making real progress in this scenario."


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    • Editor-in Chief:
    • Theodore Massey
    • Editor:
    • Robert Sokonow
    • Editorial Staff:
    • Musaba Dekau
      Lin Takahashi
      Thomas Levine
      Cynthia Casteneda Avina
      Ronald Harvinger
      Lisa Andonis

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