Early Detection - Lustgarten Pancreatic Cancer Research

Earlier Detection

Pancreatic cancer surgery offers the best chance for long-term survival, yet currently, less than 20% of patients are eligible for life-saving surgery upon diagnosis. The majority of pancreatic cancers are identified after the disease has metastasized, or spread, to other organs, making treatment more challenging.

But, Lustgarten-supported researchers are always up for the challenge!

We are committed to funding the world’s best earlier detection research, giving patients and their families more help, and more hope, than ever before.

Detecting Cancer Early Through a Single Blood Test

CancerSEEK, designed by Lustgarten-funded researcher Dr. Bert Vogelstein and his team at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, can detect the early presence of multiple cancers, including pancreatic cancer, and also can identify where in the body the cancer began. A study published in Science (February 28, 2018) found CancerSEEK has a specificity of greater than 99% and a sensitivity of 72% in patients with pancreatic cancer stages 1-3—meaning it is highly successful at identifying those with the disease and also correctly identifying those without the disease—and accurately predicted cancer type.

In 2019, Thrive Earlier Detection Corp., founded to commercialize CancerSEEK, launched a prospective study of 10,000 healthy patients to determine if CancerSEEK identified the early presence of certain cancers. Results reported in 2020 showed CancerSEEK more than doubled (25% to 52%) the number of cancers discovered in individuals with no prior history of the disease.

Exact Sciences acquired Thrive in January 2021 to move the test to market. New technologies are being developed to improve the test’s accuracy and will be incorporated in an 80,000-person registration trial seeking FDA approval. The CancerSEEK research lays the foundation for a single blood screening test for multiple cancers that could be offered as part of routine medical checks and represents a significant step forward in how pancreatic cancer may be diagnosed in the future.

“Rapidly advancing technologies have accelerated research and offered opportunities for discoveries about pancreatic cancer that were previously unattainable. In the coming years, we anticipate even more progress in understanding, detecting and treating the disease.” –Dr. Bert Vogelstein

Using Artificial Intelligence to Find Pancreatic Cancer Earlier

Another team of Johns Hopkins researchers, led by Elliot Fishman, M.D., is harnessing the power of machine learning, or artificial intelligence, to detect tiny, early-stage tumors on CT scans. The FELIX program uses data from thousands of scans to teach computers to detect tumors small enough to be missed by even the most experienced radiologists.

FELIX research has demonstrated sensitivities of more than 90% and specificities of more than 85% on average-sized pancreatic cancer—meaning it is highly effective in identifying people who have the disease and those who don’t. The research is especially promising—25% of pancreatic cancers identified on scans by FELIX imaging were not previously detected.

Researchers are now perfecting the technology to discover tumors measuring one centimeter—the length of a staple—or less, when life-saving surgery is often possible. The goal is to ensure information from the FELIX program is incorporated as standard imaging in MRI and CT scan machines.




The FELIX program is named for Harry Potter’s Felix Felicis, also called “Liquid Luck,” a magical potion that makes the drinker lucky, and focuses on developing new methods of earlier detection using artificial intelligence.

Identifying and Testing Pancreatic Cysts

Pancreatic cysts can be common within the general population, and researchers at Johns Hopkins are making incredible progress in evaluating which cysts are likely to develop into pancreatic cancer, so only those patients with pre-cancerous cysts undergo surgical removal. The Comprehensive Cyst (CompCyst) test combines clinical, radiological, genetic and protein marker information to classify pancreatic cysts to determine the best course of action—surgery or surveillance. The Lustgarten Laboratory at Johns Hopkins is working to further develop CompCyst into a clinically approved test.

Focusing on Pancreatic Cancer Prevention in Families

Knowing if a genetic predisposition to pancreatic cancer exists in your family is an important component of managing your health. Nearly 10% of pancreatic cancer cases are caused by an inherited mutation in a gene that also raises the risk of other cancers including breast, ovarian and prostate. The GENERATE (GENetic Education, Risk Assessment, and TEsting) Study is designed for people who have a first-degree relative (parent, child or sibling) with pancreatic cancer, with or without a known genetic mutation. The study’s goal is to improve genetic testing and cancer prevention in family members of pancreatic cancer patients.

If a relative does have an inherited risk, there may be options for preventing cancer or detecting it early at a curable stage via frequent cancer screenings. After going through online education about genetic testing, participants underwent genetic testing from home, at no cost, by mailing in a saliva sample and then having access to a genetic counselor.

The GENERATE Study is being conducted by leading pancreatic cancer experts at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center; Mayo Clinic; MD Anderson Cancer; and University of California at San Diego.

Visit generatestudy.org for more information. Please note, recruitment is now closed.

“This is such an exciting time in research because organizations like the Lustgarten Foundation are making so much progress in developing new ways of identifying pancreatic cancer early and in devising new treatment options. There’s truly more hope than ever before.” –Scott Nelson, pancreatic cancer survivor and patient advocate for GENERATE

Screening High-Risk Individuals

As part of the Pancreatic Cancer Collective, the Interception Dream Team, which we fund along with Stand Up To Cancer, is identifying people at high risk for developing pancreatic cancer based on family history and “intercepting” the cancer in those high-risk people. The team – from six renowned institutions — is testing 2,000 pancreatic cancer patients for heritable mutations and screening their immediate family members for potential pancreatic cancer risk. The team will also apply a mathematical formula for developing improved imaging tools for early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in high-risk groups and collaborate with the team that is working on CancerSEEK.

Screening for pancreatic cancer is also underway through the Cancer of the Pancreas Screening – 5 (CAPS -5) Study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Association for Cancer Research. The CAPS -5 Study focuses on people who have a high risk for the disease due to a family history or genetic mutation and provides pancreatic cancer surveillance using a combination of endoscopic ultrasonography, MRIs, and CT scans. The CAPS – 5 Study is being conducted at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center (Cleveland, OH); Columbia University Medical Center (New York, NY); Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, MA); Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore, MD); University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI); University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA); University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA); and Yale University (New Haven, CT).

For more information, including eligibility criteria and contact information for each participating center, visit https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02000089.

Related Topics:

Learn about our personalized medicine research.
Learn about the work we are funding in drug development.
Read about our dedicated research lab.
Learn more about Dr. Fishman’s artificial intelligence research


We mobilize the brightest minds who bring cutting-edge thinking to pancreatic cancer. Thanks to your support, we have directed $186 million to research. We can’t cure pancreatic cancer without your support.

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