Background: Pancreatic cancer is a lethal disease, with near uniform 5-year mortality rates. The key to improving survival of pancreatic cancer rests upon early detection of this neoplasm at a resectable, and hence potentially curable, stage.
Methods: We review the current state of the literature vis-à-vis the three common precursor lesions of pancreatic adenocarcinoma: pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasia, intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm, and mucinous cystic neoplasm. We also discuss two clinical scenarios of emerging importance, namely asymptomatic pancreatic cysts ('pancreatic incidentalomas') and the significance of precursor lesions in familial pancreatic cancer kindreds.
Results: Pancreatic intraepithelial neoplasias are the microscopic precursor lesions of pancreatic adenocarcinomas, while intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms and mucinous cystic neoplasms are macroscopic, cystic precursor lesions. All three noninvasive entities demonstrate a multistep morphologic and genetic progression that culminates in frank invasive adenocarcinoma. Despite these commonalities, each precursor lesion harbors a unique repertoire of clinicopathologic and genetic characteristics that has an impact on natural history and prognosis of these lesions. Due to improvements in radiological techniques, asymptomatic pancreatic cysts are being increasingly discovered in the general population; intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms and mucinous cystic neoplasms are the most common underlying histology in resected incidentalomas of the pancreas. Pancreatic asymptomatic cysts present an enormous challenge in terms of accurate diagnosis and management stratification. Incorporating molecular signatures of cystic precursor lesions into the diagnostic algorithm will likely become a standard of care for asymptomatic pancreatic cysts. High-risk individuals from familial pancreatic cancer kindreds are another group of individuals where knowledge of precursor lesions has had a therapeutic impact; sensitive imaging technologies have enabled the identification and subsequent resection of pancreatic cancer precursors in these high-risk individuals, preventing the progression to invasive cancer.
Conclusions: Precursor lesions of pancreatic adenocarcinomas represent a unique opportunity for diagnosis and intervention for a malignancy with near uniform lethality. Further studies on these precursors will enable the development of rational early detection and therapeutic strategies in order to ameliorate pancreatic cancer survival.