Urine tests could help diagnose pancreatic cancer in the early stages, saving thousands of lives each year / Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Early diagnosis could increase survival rates of pancreatic cancer patients

Urine tests to detect a "signature" of protein could improve early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer - potentially saving thousands of lives every year.

Scientists from the UK and Spain have discovered a protein which is only present in patients with pancreatic cancer and can be detected by a simple urine test.

Pancreatic cancer does not usually show symptoms in the first few stages making it difficult to diagnose early and have one of the lowest survival rates.

Four out of five people with the disease are diagnosed when it has already spread, meaning they cannot have surgery – the only potential cure.

Using 500 urine samples, including 200 from patients with pancreatic cancer, the scientists were able to locate the protein "signature" with 90 per cent accuracy.

Almost 9,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK every year, with about half of those affected aged 75 or older. It is the 11th most common cancer and the 5th most common cause of cancer death in the UK.

Just one per cent of patients survived ten years after diagnosis with pancreatic cancer in 2010/11, according to Cancer Research UK. Three per cent survived five years and 21 per cent survived one year. The average survival rate for one year of all cancers was 70 per cent.

Currently the cancer is discovered when GPs examine patients for signs of jaundice, stomach or back pain and unexplained weight loss and they are referred to hospital for an ultrasound, CT or MRI scan, with 80% of those affected already at the terminal stage.

"It’s hard to ignore the fact that there has been very little progress in treating the disease over the past four decades," Flora Malein of Cancer Research UK said. "And survival from pancreatic cancer remains stubbornly low."

More research is planned which will look at those who have a genetic predisposition for the disease to further improve early diagnosis rates.

If diagnosed in Stage 1, pancreatic cancer patients would have a 60 per cent chance of surviving.