Biomarker finds which pancreatic cysts are benign, eases cancer fears

INDIANAPOLIS - An Indianapolis doctor is turning pancreatic cancer research on its head -- all in the name of patient peace of mind.

Dr. C. Max Schmidt is a pancreatic surgeon at Indiana University Melvin & Bren Simon Cancer Center. He is looking for a fresh answer for his patients.

Pancreatic cancer is a deadly disease, but trying to remove a cyst --before knowing if it is cancerous or not -- can be just as deadly.

"We don't want to make the treatment worse than the disease," Schmidt said.

Simply removing a pancreatic cyst can be very dangerous, so treatment -- even for a cyst that’s not yet cancerous -- can be life-long. Schmidt said the screenings are invasive and expensive.

"If pancreas cancer is deadly and pancreas surgery is morbid and you're stuck in the middle with a cyst that could be cancer, you're stuck in between a rock and a hard place," Schmidt said.

That’s the dilemma that has caused him to look at pancreatic cancer from a different angle. Instead of deciding what is cancerous, he has found a biomarker in the pancreas that can tell if a cyst is benign, or in other words, cancer-free.

"If they do this test, they have the benign test, they get off free," he said.

That would mean no more worries and no more tests for those patients.

Patient Chris Duncan anxiously awaits the day when the fluid from her own pancreatic cyst is tested.

"It's a lining problem, just like the colon. There's literally, inside here, are these teenie tiny polyps," Duncan said.

Schmidt has been seeing Duncan ever since her cyst was discovered eight years ago.

"The first few years, it made me really nervous and I thought a lot about why I don't I take it out? Why does it have to stay?" Duncan said.

Today she is still living with the threat of cancer, but yearns for the day when she can get a definitive answer -- will her cyst ever become cancer?

"It would mean a lot if I knew that if we did this really easy test that he explained, and I knew it was benign and the chances of it turning into cancer would be nothing and I wouldn't have to come back ... I wouldn't ever think about it again," Duncan said.

Relief could be on the way soon. Schmidt hopes to make the test available to patients in Indianapolis in six months.

"We can say in this situation, we got it out, it'll never come back, you'll never have cancer, go live your life," Schmidt said.

The first step in bringing the test to patients is to open a clinical-grade lab at IU Health in Indianapolis.

In the meantime, Schmidt’s researchers are working to find out if what they know about the pancreatic biomarker can be used to understand cysts found on other organs too.

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Watch Dr. Schmidt further explain his findings in the video below:

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