Pancreatic cancer (PC) is a leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide. Clinical symptoms typically present late when treatment options are limited and survival expectancy is very short. Metastatic mutations are heterogeneous and can accumulate up to twenty years before PC diagnosis. Given such genetic diversity, detecting and managing the complex states of disease progression may be limited to imaging modalities and markers present in circulation. Recent developments in digital pathology imaging show potential for early PC detection, making a differential diagnosis, and predicting treatment sensitivity leading to long-term survival in advanced stage patients. Despite large research efforts, the only serum marker currently approved for clinical use is CA 19-9. Utility of CA 19-9 has been shown to improve when it is used in combination with PC-specific markers. Efforts are being made to develop early-screening assays that can detect tumor-derived material, present in circulation, before metastasis takes a significant course. Detection of markers that identify circulating tumor cells and tumor-derived extracellular vesicles (EVs) in biofluid samples offers a promising non-invasive method for this purpose. Circulating tumor cells exhibit varying expression of epithelial and mesenchymal markers depending on the state of tumor differentiation. This offers a possibility for monitoring disease progression using minimally invasive procedures. EVs also offer the benefit of detecting molecular cargo of tumor origin and add the potential to detect circulating vesicle markers from tumors that lack invasive properties. This review integrates recent genetic insights of PC progression with developments in digital pathology and early detection of tumor-derived circulating material.
Keywords: Circulating tumor cells; Digital pathology; Early detection; Exosomes; Pancreatic cancer.