The complexity and heterogeneity of the human plasma proteome have presented significant challenges in the identification of protein changes associated with tumor development. Refined genetically engineered mouse (GEM) models of human cancer have been shown to faithfully recapitulate the molecular, biological, and clinical features of human disease. Here, we sought to exploit the merits of a well-characterized GEM model of pancreatic cancer to determine whether proteomics technologies allow identification of protein changes associated with tumor development and whether such changes are relevant to human pancreatic cancer.
Methods and Findings
Plasma was sampled from mice at early and advanced stages of tumor development and from matched controls. Using a proteomic approach based on extensive protein fractionation, we confidently identified 1,442 proteins that were distributed across seven orders of magnitude of abundance in plasma. Analysis of proteins chosen on the basis of increased levels in plasma from tumor-bearing mice and corroborating protein or RNA expression in tissue documented concordance in the blood from 30 newly diagnosed patients with pancreatic cancer relative to 30 control specimens. A panel of five proteins selected on the basis of their increased level at an early stage of tumor development in the mouse was tested in a blinded study in 26 humans from the CARET (Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial) cohort. The panel discriminated pancreatic cancer cases from matched controls in blood specimens obtained between 7 and 13 mo prior to the development of symptoms and clinical diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Our findings indicate that GEM models of cancer, in combination with in-depth proteomic analysis, provide a useful strategy to identify candidate markers applicable to human cancer with potential utility for early detection.
Samir Hanash and colleagues identify proteins that are increased at an early stage of pancreatic tumor development in a mouse model and may be a useful tool in detecting early tumors in humans.
Cancers are life-threatening, disorganized masses of cells that can occur anywhere in the human body. They develop when cells acquire genetic changes that allow them to grow uncontrollably and to spread around the body (metastasize). If a cancer is detected when it is still small and has not metastasized, surgery can often provide a cure. Unfortunately, many cancers are detected only when they are large enough to press against surrounding tissues and cause pain or other symptoms. By this time, surgical removal of the original (primary) tumor may be impossible and there may be secondary cancers scattered around the body. In such cases, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can sometimes help, but the outlook for patients whose cancers are detected late is often poor. One cancer type for which late detection is a particular problem is pancreatic adenocarcinoma. This cancer rarely causes any symptoms in its early stages. Furthermore, the symptoms it eventually causes—jaundice, abdominal and back pain, and weight loss—are seen in many other illnesses. Consequently, pancreatic cancer has usually spread before it is diagnosed, and most patients die within a year of their diagnosis.
Why Was This Study Done?
If a test could be developed to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stages, the lives of many patients might be extended. Tumors often release specific proteins—“cancer biomarkers”—into the blood, a bodily fluid that can be easily sampled. If a protein released into the blood by pancreatic cancer cells could be identified, it might be possible to develop a noninvasive screening test for this deadly cancer. In this study, the researchers use a “proteomic” approach to identify potential biomarkers for early pancreatic cancer. Proteomics is the study of the patterns of proteins made by an organism, tissue, or cell and of the changes in these patterns that are associated with various diseases.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers started their search for pancreatic cancer biomarkers by studying the plasma proteome (the proteins in the fluid portion of blood) of mice genetically engineered to develop cancers that closely resemble human pancreatic tumors. Through the use of two techniques called high-resolution mass spectrometry and acrylamide isotopic labeling, the researchers identified 165 proteins that were present in larger amounts in plasma collected from mice with early and/or advanced pancreatic cancer than in plasma from control mice. Then, to test whether any of these protein changes were relevant to human pancreatic cancer, the researchers analyzed blood samples collected from patients with pancreatic cancer. These samples, they report, contained larger amounts of some of these proteins than blood collected from patients with chronic pancreatitis, a condition that has similar symptoms to pancreatic cancer. Finally, using blood samples collected during a clinical trial, the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (a cancer-prevention study), the researchers showed that the measurement of five of the proteins present in increased amounts at an early stage of tumor development in the mouse model discriminated between people with pancreatic cancer and matched controls up to 13 months before cancer diagnosis.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that in-depth proteomic analysis of genetically engineered mouse models of human cancer might be an effective way to identify biomarkers suitable for the early detection of human cancers. Previous attempts to identify such biomarkers using human samples have been hampered by the many noncancer-related differences in plasma proteins that exist between individuals and by problems in obtaining samples from patients with early cancer. The use of a mouse model of human cancer, these findings indicate, can circumvent both of these problems. More specifically, these findings identify a panel of proteins that might allow earlier detection of pancreatic cancer and that might, therefore, extend the life of some patients who develop this cancer. However, before a routine screening test becomes available, additional markers will need to be identified and extensive validation studies in larger groups of patients will have to be completed.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050123.
The MedlinePlus Encyclopedia has a page on pancreatic cancer (in English and Spanish). Links to further information are provided by MedlinePlus
The US National Cancer Institute has information about pancreatic cancer for patients and health professionals (in English and Spanish)
The UK charity Cancerbackup also provides information for patients about pancreatic cancer
The Clinical Proteomic Technologies for Cancer Initiative (a US National Cancer Institute initiative) provides a tutorial about proteomics and cancer and information on the Mouse Proteomic Technologies Initiative