The incidence and the mortality rates for pancreatic cancer are the same, indicating its dismal outlook. Its natural history remains elusive. Cigarette smoking appears to be the most significant environmental culprit. Hereditary factors may account for approximately 5% of the total pancreatic cancer burden. However, when its extant heterogeneity and the reduced penetrance of causal germline mutations are considered, the hereditary incidence may significantly exceed this estimate. Even when endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), the gold standard for pancreatic cancer screening, is utilized, early detection with surgical cure has rarely been accomplished. Needed to ameliorate this problem is research into genetic and environmental risk factors and their interaction. The identification of tumor biomarkers which signal early pathogenetic events, thereby enabling pancreatic cancer to be diagnosed at its earliest possible stage before it has spread to regional lymph nodes or to more distant sites, will improve the outlook. We discuss our research approaches to this problem. Members of families with the p16 germline mutation will undergo EUS coupled with the collection of pancreatic juice for the study of a possible gradient for telomerase activity, K-ras mutations, and cytology. If changes in these putative biomarkers are observed, endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP) would be the next diagnostic step. We conclude with a discussion of ethical concerns about this research.
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