The team has developed a novel means of testing for pancreatic cancer that will enable doctors to treat the killer disease at its earliest stages. They are also now able to show how the risk of cancer for these patients changes with age.
The Liverpool-based study group known as EUROPAC (European Registry Of Hereditary Pancreatitis And Familial Pancreatic Cancer), working in collaboration with a similar group in Germany, has shown that familial pancreatic cancer develops at an increasingly younger age as it is passed down generations - a phenomenon known as anticipation.
In the largest study of its kind, the team surveyed 600 families with a history of pancreatic cancer and identified a subgroup of over 80 families whose lifetime risk of developing the cancer was 50 per cent.
Dr Bill Greenhalf, from the University's Division of Surgery and Oncology, said: "Of those families with the highest incidence of pancreatic cancer, we found that members developed the disease at a younger age in each generation. As well as giving important clues about the nature of the disease, this allows a more accurate estimate of the risk an individual faces of developing cancer in the short term so we can treat the cancer as soon as possible."
The team led by Dr Greenhalf has developed a novel method of analysing pancreatic juice, taken from patients in families with a history of pancreatic cancer. By analysing DNA scientists are able to identify specific genetic mutations that indicate the chances of a patient developing the disease in the short term, ranging from a 0.1% chance to a 90% certainty.
Dr Greenhalf added: "Our research has provided strong evidence that anticipation and pancreatic juice analysis are the most effective means of screening for pancreatic cancer in families with a history of the disease. We intend to carry out further trials of these techniques and hope the results encourage more widespread adoption of these screening methods."
The research is published in two separate papers in the academic journals, Gut and Gastroenterology.
Notes to editors
1. The Pancreas Treatment and Research Centre at the University of Liverpool is the largest of its kind in the UK.
2. Cancer of the pancreas is one of the ten most common cancers in Britain, killing 7,000 people every year. It is amongst the most difficult to detect and treat. There are very few early symptoms and so most patients present late. Only 15% of patients are suitable for surgery - the only treatment available - and most sufferers die within a year of diagnosis.
3. The University of Liverpool is one of the UK's leading research institutions. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £90 million annually.