With one of the bleakest survival rates of all forms of cancer, pancreatic cancer has been a tough nut for researchers to crack. This disease has an average of nearly 50,000 new cases diagnosed each year and nearly that number of deaths attributed to it annually. With a five-year survival rate that’s in the single digits of percentages, researchers are working around the clock to provide patients and their doctors with better methods for determining risks and detecting this disease earlier.

As it stands now, early detection is extremely difficult and most patients are diagnosed in later stages of the disease. That complicates the odds of treatments being effective courtesy of the likelihood of cancer’s spread prior to diagnosis, among other factors.

Researchers out of Johns Hopkins may have found a new way to better gauge pancreatic cancer risks, which could lead to earlier detection. A recent study uncovered four specific regions in the human genome where changes may mark a greater risk for the disease’s development. The study was published online in June in Nature Genetics. It included genetic information from nearly 10,000 pancreatic cancer patients and 11,569 healthy patients. The study, researchers say, confirms a connection between risk for pancreatic cancer and genetic variants that have been linked to other cancers.

While further study is required to determine how effective the genetic markers may prove over the long haul, researchers say the findings delivering promise. The hope is that these genetic markers can help identify high-risk populations so pancreatic cancer can be detected earlier when it is more treatable.

People who are concerned about pancreatic cancer are urged to discuss the condition with their healthcare providers. Doctors are best positioned to help patients understand their unique risks for the disease and what, if any steps can be taken to lower risks.