ASU researcher offers solution for early pancreatic cancer detection

ASU researcher offers solution for early pancreatic cancer detection

April 11, 2017

April 11, 2017

Early detection is the key to successful treatment of any type of cancer. With pancreatic cancer, however, it’s even more critical. According to the American Cancer Society, four out of five people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within one year.

One ASU researcher, however, hopes to change this grim prognosis with a new early detection tool. Tony Hu, an associate professor at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, uses an innovative strategy to analyze blood samples for a specific pancreatic cancer marker, or protein. So far, the approach has been effective in a small sample of patients.

“If you can capture it at stage one and start the treatment procedure, I think the five-year survival rate can be dramatically increased,” Hu says.

Behind the technology

For the past two years, Hu has worked with a team of biochemists, biomedical engineers and experts from a variety of other disciplines to create a technology that requires only a very small blood sample to detect tumor-derived extracellular vesicles (EVs), which he describes as “tiny bubbles of material emitted from most living cells.”

Hu’s test detects tumor-derived EVs that carry a protein called Ephrin type-A receptor 2 (EphA2), which his team considers a distinct biomarker of pancreatic cancer. His group believes that rapid and inexpensive blood tests to detect this marker could potentially diagnose pancreatic cancer at its earliest stages.

A novel approach

Tumor-derived EVs have been a recent focus for researchers seeking better diagnostics for a variety of disease states, including cancer. However, it is difficult to separate the specific disease-linked EVs from other EVs circulating in the body, and traditional EV tests require large blood samples and are often time-consuming, costly and impractical. Hu’s unique nanoparticle-based technique helps solve some of these problems. It requires minimal preparation and only one microliter of a plasma blood sample (less than a teardrop).

“Dr. Hu’s cross-disciplinary collaboration with biochemists, biomedical engineers and other experts is key to developing this innovative solution for early detection of pancreatic cancer,” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “His promising, use-inspired approach aligns with ASU’s commitment to pursue high-risk, pioneering research for improving the diagnosis and treatment of complex diseases.”

With Hu’s diagnostic tool, blood samples are diluted and applied to a sensor chip. The chip is coated with antibodies of one EV protein. EVs that bind to the chip are mixed with antibody-coated nanoparticles—one green, one red — that recognize a second EV protein and the pancreatic cancer marker EphA2. Only pancreatic cancer EVs bind both nanoparticles, and this double-binding event produces a strong color change that is easily detectable when EV sensor chips are examined under a microscope.

Hu has already performed a pilot study with 59 pancreatic cancer patients, 48 healthy people and 48 patients with pancreatitis, a condition that shares several symptoms with pancreatic cancer. In this study, the test distinguished the pancreatic cancer patients, including early stage patients, from the pancreatitis patients and healthy individuals. The results had greater than 90-percent accuracy. These study results were published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Biomedical Engineering.

“That’s a breakthrough, but it’s also just a start,” Hu says of the accomplishment.

Next steps

Now, Hu is working with colleagues at MD Anderson Cancer Center and other institutions that can provide blood samples to further test the diagnostic performance of the technology. His group also can modify the nanoparticle used in his assay to detect other disease states. A lung cancer foundation in California has promised blood samples for testing, and a new project for lymphoma is in the works, Hu notes.

The test could also inform cancer treatment progress, because EV levels should increase as tumor mass can increase or decrease in response to treatment. This is especially important for pancreatic cancer patients whose tumors often exhibit severe resistance to antitumor therapies. Rapid determination of therapy resistance could allow clinicians to alter a patient’s treatment in order to obtain an improved tumor response. Better understanding of tumor responses to certain therapies could also aid in the evaluation of more effective anticancer drugs or drug combinations.

To validate the technology for pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Hu estimates he will need to test at least 1,500 patient samples. If further testing is successful, he is optimistic that the test could be commercialized within two years.

“We’re happy we made the great effort in expanding the platform since the paper was published,” Hu says. “We’ve seen hundreds of emails from patients and their families. You can tell everybody has a strong desire to have this available for clinical applications.”

In an effort to accelerate potentially lifesaving research like Hu’s, ASU has embarked on Campaign ASU 2020, a comprehensive fundraising campaign that focuses on cultivating private support for, in part, the university’s research enterprise. Private citizens, foundations and corporations supporting Hu’s research provide him the resources necessary to fulfill one of the Biodesign Institute’s key missions: to move answers more quickly from the laboratory to the treatment center.

Tuberculosis application

In related research, Hu has pioneered a rapid and accurate diagnostic for tuberculosis (TB), using a tiny sample of blood. Although the U.S. is among the countries least affected by tuberculosis, the infectious disease is one of the world’s deadliest: One-third of the world’s population is infected with TB, with the majority of cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

The new method promises to revolutionize testing for TB, which is characteristically done through saliva samples or biopsies that can take weeks to yield results and are often error-prone. The new diagnostic test is completed in just hours yet outperforms all available TB tests currently on the market.

Tuberculosis shares at least one trait with pancreatic cancer: Early diagnosis and treatment are critical. In the case of TB, the testing method not only offers the patient the best prognosis for a cure but dramatically reduces the risks of spreading this highly contagious disease, particularly in nations like India and China.

Visit ASU’s Biodesign Institute website to see how its research teams are revolutionizing medical diagnosis for a number of diseases. To learn how you can contribute to future research efforts, contact Eric Spicer, director of development, at eric.spicer@asu.edu or visit biodesign.asu.edu/get-involved/give-now. Learn more about Campaign ASU 2020 at GiveTo.ASU.edu. The comprehensive funding effort supports a wide range of research initiatives at the university, including advancing promising bioscience research like Hu’s.