Pancreatic cancer is one of the most frightening forms of cancer because it's so deadly. About 200,000 people worldwide will be diagnosed this year with the disease, and most of those people will be dead within a year of diagnosis. In the United States, the rate of new cases has been steady at about 38,000 people each year. In parts of Asia, the number of people with pancreatic cancer is on the rise.
Cancer researcher James Abbruzzese from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, says he and his colleague, Dr. Manal Hassan, already know there is a link between hepatitis B and C viruses and liver cancer. Abbruzzese says they wanted to see if they could find a link between some hepatitis viruses and pancreatic cancer. They recruited more than 1,300 people for their research, including a set of patients with pancreatic cancer and an equivalent matched population of what are called control patients.
"In this case, we had twice as many controls as we had patients because of an attempt to match the patients so that we could try to clearly see the impact of hepatitis exposure," Abbruzzese says.
He says they tested all of the subjects for two different hepatitis viruses – hepatitis B and C. These viruses cause hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis not only turns a person's skin yellow, but it makes his liver swell, can destroy liver cells, and causes appetite and weight loss.
"All the patients we draw blood from, and so we have a large bank of blood on both our control and our cancer patients," Abbruzzese says. "And we can go back and then interrogate those blood samples for a variety of different things – in this case, prior exposure to hepatitis B or hepatitis C."
Abbruzzese says there didn't seem to be an association between pancreatic cancer and hepatitis C.
"With hepatitis B, the study demonstrated that there was a two- to three-fold increase in risk for pancreatic cancer for patients who have had evidence in their blood of prior exposure to hepatitis B," he says.
The good news, says Abbruzzese, is that there is a vaccine against hepatitis B, so people at risk for contracting the disease can protect themselves. But he says it's a bigger problem in places where hepatitis B is widespread – such as some countries in Asia, where many children get it from their mothers at birth. He says in those cases, better support is needed for public health efforts to mass-vaccinate against hepatitis.
study is published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.