New research that provides a better understanding of pancreatic cancer may help identify those people at increased risk.

Pancreatic cancer is a stealthy cancer that is usually detected at very late stages and has a 5-year survival rate of less than 5%. Strategies that might help identify which persons have an increased risk of developing the disease are sorely needed. Some cases seem to run in families, but the genes that are responsible for such inherited predisposition remain largely unknown.

To get a better understanding of the clinical features of inherited and noninherited forms of the disease, Andrew Biankin, MBBS, PhD, of the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, and his colleagues studied 766 patients with pancreatic cancer. Patients were thought to have an inherited predisposition if they had one or more affected first-degree relatives. Otherwise, their cancer was considered sporadic. The findings were published in Cancer (2014; doi:10.1002/cncr.28863).

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Nearly 9% of patients with pancreatic cancer had at least one parent or sibling who also had pancreatic cancer. When Biankin and his team examined the pancreas tissue adjacent to the cancer in all study participants, they found more precancerous tissue in those whose first-degree relatives also had pancreatic cancer. They also found that members of these families appeared to be at higher risk of developing other cancers including melanoma and endometrial cancer. Importantly, active smoking was associated with a significantly younger age at diagnosis in all patients.

“These findings are important because they suggest that the genes we inherit from our parents likely play a significant role in our lifetime risk of developing pancreatic cancer,” said Biankin. “Secondly, they emphasize that when assessing someone’s individual risk of developing pancreatic cancer, it may be important to assess not just family history of pancreatic cancer but other malignancies too. Finally, our data emphasize the importance of smoking abstinence.”