Shining light on pancreatic cancer

William Howatt spends his retirement fixing things.

"It's a challenge. It's something you have to think about," said Howatt.

As a pediatrician, William spent his career fixing children.

"It's sort of ironic because the same medicines I used to prescribe for cystic fibrosis patients, I'm now taking," said Howatt.

But he's not taking it for cystic fibrosis. It's to treat the pancreatic cancer William was diagnosed with a year-and-a-half ago. He's one of the few to battle this disease this long.

Ninety-five percent of patients die from the disease. More than half die within six months of finding out they have it. That's why it's critical to diagnose pancreatic cancer early.

"A small tumor can be millimeters in size when it starts," said Dr. James Scheiman, University of Michigan Medical Center.

Symptoms resemble chronic pancreatitis -- an inflammation of the pancreas.

That's why doctors at the University of Michigan are using light to help detect the differences between chronic pancreatitis and cancer.

"Different tissues have different interactions with the light," said Dr. Scheiman.

The goal of their optical spectroscopy research is to create a fiber optic probe that would feed through a needle into the pancreas.

A computer would read the differences in the spectrum of light from different cells, allowing doctors to know immediately if the patient is suffering from inflammation or cancer.

After five weeks of radiation and six months of chemo, William is still working in his shop, hoping to beat the odds and build a life cancer-free.

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Lying behind the stomach and in front of the spine, the pancreas is a six-inch gland that aids in digestion. It produces hormones like insulin and glucagon as well as digestive enzymes that help break down nutrients. It may also be a deadly location for malignant cells. Most of the time, pancreatic cancers start in the exocrine cells that produce digestive juices.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly types of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 37,680 people in the United States were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, and almost just as many people died from it -- roughly 34,000. From 2001 to 2005, the median age of diagnosis was 72 years old.

The prognosis of pancreatic cancer is grim, with less than five percent surviving five years after diagnosis. Factors that contribute to prognosis include whether or not the tumor can be removed surgically, the stage of the cancer, size of the tumor, whether the cancer has spread, the patient's overall health and whether the cancer is newly diagnosed or has recurred. Pancreatic cancer can only be controlled if it is detected before spreading to other parts of the body. Otherwise, treatment involves easing the symptoms.


Because symptoms aren't always present, detecting pancreatic cancer is difficult. It is also sometimes referred to as a "silent disease" because early pancreatic cancer usually doesn't cause any symptoms. As it progresses, later symptoms can include pain in the upper abdomen, appetite loss, significant weight loss and jaundice.

Smoking, diabetes and chronic pancreatitis are risk factors for the disease, as well as being a male over 60 and black. Diagnostic tests like chest X-rays, CT scans, MRI, PET scans and endoscopic ultrasounds are often used to reveal abnormalities.


Researchers at the University of Michigan are investigating whether light can help detect pancreatic and other cancers in their early stages. "Until better treatment approaches can be developed, the only opportunity to change disease-associated mortality in pancreatic cancer patients is early diagnosis," Mary-Ann Mycek, an associate professor and associate chair of the University of Michigan's Department of Biomedical Engineering, was quoted as saying. Their goal is to help doctors distinguish between cancerous tissue changes and benign changes due to disease.

"The idea of our research project is to use light to characterize what is going on inside a tissue," James Scheiman, M.D., a gastroenterologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., told Ivanhoe. Tissue optical spectroscopy could revolutionize cancer diagnosis.

Optical spectroscopy would be used during minimally-invasive endoscopic diagnostic procedures. Tissue properties are altered in the presence of disease.

Optical diagnostic tools that shine light through the tissue would look for those signs of disease that could then be treated. "We are looking at how the tissue and the molecules of the tissue are actually affected for a variety of different light properties," Dr. Scheiman explained.

Experts say light is safe for the body because of its non-ionizing radiation and also low in cost compared to existing diagnostic technologies.



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