May 19, 2014 11:00 AM EDT

By 2030, more people will be diagnosed with breast, prostate and lung cancers than with pancreatic cancers, but more pancreatic cancer patients will die of their disease, according to a paper in the journal Cancer Research.

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Rates of pancreatic cancer are increasing, in part because of the aging population, and in part because of rising rates of type 2 diabetes, which results in some cases when pancreatic islet cells become less efficient at producing insulin. Unlike breast, prostate and colon cancers, which have effective screening methods, there are no strong, reliable ways to detect pancreatic tumors because the organ lies so deep inside the body. That explains why the death rate for the disease is so high; most cases are not diagnosed until the advanced stages, when surgery and other treatments are no longer effective.

Death rates from pancreatic cancer may also rise in prominence because mortality from other cancers are dropping, says Lynn Matrisian, vice president of scientific and medical affairs at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

There is hope that a blood test for pancreatic tumors may detect the disease at an early stage; researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center reported at the American Association for Cancer Research special conference on pancreatic cancer that a panel of four markers in the blood successfully distinguished people with early pancreatic cancer from those with benign pancreatic cysts. And scientists at Stanford University identified a protein that pancreatic and other tumors use to protect themselves from being eliminated by the body’s immune system. They say that a drug targeting this protein, CD47, successfully shrunk pancreatic tumors in mice and they plan to study the drug in human trials this summer.

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