The clinical utility and limitations of serum carbohydrate antigen (CA19-9) as a diagnostic tool for pancreatic cancer and cholangiocarcinoma

Dig Dis Sci. 2011 Aug;56(8):2491-6. doi: 10.1007/s10620-011-1709-8. Epub 2011 Apr 23.


Background: CA19-9 is a tumor marker for pancreatic cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, and other malignancies. However, its sensitivity and specificity is suboptimal in clinical practice, which we hypothesized limits its clinical utility.

Aims: To evaluate the clinical utility and limitations of CA19-9 as a tumor marker.

Methods: We performed a retrospective review of CA19-9 levels (U/ml) in 483 consecutive patients between 2006 and 2008 at two university hospitals. We abstracted clinical, radiographic, and pathological data and final diagnoses. Descriptive and non-parametric analyses were performed.

Results: Patients presenting with jaundice had the highest CA19-9 (420) compared to other complaints (<20) (p<0.01). The indications with the highest CA19-9 had evidence of biliary obstruction (71), liver mass (54), and pancreatic head mass (27) compared to other indications (<15) (p<0.01). The diagnoses with the highest CA19-9 (p<0.01) were cholangiocarcinoma (476), pancreatic cancer (161), and choledocholithiasis (138). Using a receiver operator curve to evaluate CA19-9, the area under the curve was 0.7 when evaluating all patients for pancreatic cancer or cholangiocarcinoma or patients with pancreatic head mass for pancreatic cancer.

Conclusions: This study found that for pancreatic cancer and cholangiocarcinoma, CA19-9 had poor clinical utility as a tumor marker and did not change patient management. Elevations in CA19-9 were associated with biliary obstruction based on clinical history, laboratory data, and diagnoses.

MeSH terms

  • Adenoma / diagnosis*
  • Bile Duct Neoplasms / blood
  • Bile Duct Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Bile Ducts, Intrahepatic*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood*
  • CA-19-9 Antigen / blood*
  • Cholangiocarcinoma / blood
  • Cholangiocarcinoma / diagnosis*
  • Choledocholithiasis / blood
  • Choledocholithiasis / diagnosis
  • Cholestasis / blood
  • Cholestasis / diagnosis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Jaundice / blood
  • Male
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / blood
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • ROC Curve
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • CA-19-9 Antigen

Supplementary concepts

  • Pancreatic adenoma