Early stage ‘red flag’ symptoms for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common cancer in the UK. However, the mortality rate remains the highest among all cancers, due to diagnosis at late stages. As a result, less than 20% of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are suitable for surgery with curable intent, and only 16% of patients are likely to live longer than a year after diagnosis.

The survival rate is much higher when the cancer is found at an earlier stage. However, there is no national screening programme or reliable tests for pancreatic cancer. Most symptoms reported to be associated with pancreatic cancer are vague and non-specific, which increases the difficulty of general practitioners (GPs) recognising early signs of pancreatic cancer in the community.

Identifying red flag symptoms

To address this research gap, the ADEPTS study was set up, using linked data from GP records, hospital records, ONS mortality data, and cancer registry data from the QResearch database, with the aim to better understand the symptom profile of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) and pancreatic neuroendocrine neoplasms (PNEN, a rarer type of pancreatic cancer). The ADEPTS study is run by researchers from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

This is a case-control study. The team identified about 23600 patients diagnosed with PDAC and 600 patients with PNEN from the QResearch database in the last 20 years.

Up to 10 patients without cancer (controls) with the same age, sex, calendar year registered in the same general practice were identified and matched with each case (patient diagnosed with PDAC/PNEN). The team also identified a list of potential symptoms that may be associated with PDAC and/or PNEN through literature review, leading research charities like Cancer Research UK and Pancreatic Cancer UK, NICE guidelines, and patient representatives. The team explored the presentation of symptoms in different time windows (e.g. within 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years before diagnosis) and the association with the diagnosis of PDAC and PNEN.

Through this analysis, a profile of symptoms that are associated with PNEN and PDAC can be determined, which can be used to update the QCancer (Pancreas) prediction model. The model can be used in primary care settings to help GP identify patients who are at high risk and investigate these patients in a timely manner.

So far, the team have already identified a number of red flag symptoms. The results will be published next year. They have also identified certain ethnic groups that are less likely to develop PDAC, along with certain co-morbidities (other health conditions beside pancreatic cancer) that could also be used to predict cancer risk.

Increasing public awareness and GP pathways

After publishing their study findings, the research team hope to engage with relevant stakeholders, to increase public awareness of symptoms that are associated with pancreatic cancer, such as weight loss, abdominal pain, jaundice, etc.

In conjunction with this, the ADEPTS study is working with GPs to improve better direct access to diagnostic investigation resources, such as ultrasound, CT scans and MRIs. This way, when a patient presents to their GP with symptoms, they can be quickly and accurately diagnosed in the hopes of identifying PDAC earlier.

Improved GP assessment tools are being developed as part of the study. By improving the identification and quantification of red flag symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, the ADEPTS study will help GPs ensure that right patients are sent for the right investigatory methods, making efficient use of scarce or expensive resources such as MRI scans. By communicating its findings with GPs and patients, the ADEPTS study will increase public awareness of symptoms and prompt earlier diagnosis through investigation. Look out for the published findings next year.

About this study

 The ADEPTS study is funded by Pancreatic Cancer UK, and conducted by Weiqi Liao, Ashley Clift, Martina Patone, and Julia Hippisley-Cox from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

The QResearch database is founded and directed by Prof Julia Hippisley-Cox, who is the Principal Investigator of the ADEPTS project. External collaborators include Prof Carol Coupland (Medical Statistics) from the University of Nottingham, and Prof Stephen Pereira (Hepatology & Gastroenterology) from University College London.